Putting calorie counts on menus 'could harm recovery from eating disorders'

An eating disorder campaigner has called for the Government to rethink plans to put calorie counts on restaurant menus as part of its obesity crackdown.

Mental health champion Hope Virgo has launched a petition against the move, saying people with, recovering from or susceptible to eating disorders could be triggered by seeing numbers of calories in their meals.

The Government announced its plan this week to tackle obesity in Britain, encouraging overweight people to lose five pounds to save the NHS £100 million and help lower the risk of dying from coronavirus.

As well as banning junk food adverts before 9pm and launching a weight loss app, there are plans to include calorie counts on the menus of restaurants, cafés and takeaways which have more than 250 employees.

‘I had anorexia between the ages of 12 and 17,’ said Hope, who lives in south London.

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‘I was obsessed with exercising, calorie counting and everything and was eventually admitted to a mental health hospital.

‘It was about training myself to exercise and process things in a more healthy way, and move away from calorie counting.

‘I had to learn to trust myself again, and listen to myself in a different way – but moving away from that was really challenging.’

Hope, who is now 30, said when she saw the announcement as part of the obesity crackdown she thought it was ‘wrong on so many levels’.

‘I came out of hospital 11 years ago, and even now I feel worried about going into restaurants,’ she said.

‘So for people who are not as far through their recovery, it’s really triggering and it could be detrimental to someone’s recovery, and make them become even more isolated.

‘It normalises that kind of conversation around calories while out eating, when everyone needs a different amount of calories anyway – it’s not one size fits all.’

She added how the plans have come at a particularly sensitive time just after lockdown, which she says was especially difficult for those with eating disorders when there was such a huge focus on social media and using the extra time to try and lose weight.

Hope, who has worked full-time for four years with schools, universities and the NHS to educate people about eating disorders and mental health, claims the Government is using a ‘scare tactic’ to fight obesity which has not been properly thought through.

‘Of course we need to tackle obesity, but it’s not being done in the right way. I feel like people don’t get it – they think calorie counting will solve everything, but it’s just scaring people into not eating,’ she added.

‘[The Government] hasn’t even consulted people with eating disorders about what they think, they’ve just gone ahead with the plans.’

US studies of food labelling have suggested calorie counts on menus could save tens of thousands of lives, and would result in 7% fewer calories eaten during an average restaurant meal.

But researchers assumed, according to WebMD, that half of the ‘saved’ restaurant calories would be offset by additional calories consumed by diners elsewhere, such as at home.

‘We know 97% of diets based on calories fail,’ explained Hope, ‘All this will do is create a cycle where people are scared of eating so they will restrict themselves, then go home and binge at night.

‘We need to move away from this and look at education, getting people to exercise and listen to their bodies.’

She said the announcement of these measures at the same time Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme – where every Brit can get 50% off when dining in certain restaurants on Monday to Wednesdays in August – is being promoted is ‘odd’.

Beat, the UK’s leading charity supporting those affected by eating disorders, claimed introducing calorie counts on menus is ‘ineffective and dangerous’.

Chief executive Andrew Radford said: ‘Requiring calorie counts on menus risks causing great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders, since evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds. There is also little research to support the effectiveness in reducing people’s weight.  

‘While we recognise the importance of reducing obesity, we shared our concerns with the Government ahead of the release of the new strategy, and are extremely disappointed that the needs of people affected by eating disorders have once again been dismissed.

‘We know that this has caused a great deal of stress and anxiety to those who use our services, and call on the Government to urgently review these ineffective and dangerous measures.’

He added the charity is also concerned those with eating disorders may try and take advantage of the new NHS weight loss app.

A spokesperson from the Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘With over six in 10 adults and more than one in three children aged 10 to 11 years overweight or obese, we do need to ensure that people are equipped with the knowledge to make decisions about their food intake.

‘We do recognise concerns about calorie labelling and are committed to striking a careful balance between informing and educating people to make healthier choices whilst not negatively impacting people with eating disorders or those in recovery from eating disorders.’

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