Fears regarding menu calorie counts for those battling eating disorders

Woman flicking through a menu, Deborah Watson and Pia-Carson Moore

Deborah Watson from eating disorder organisation Wednesday's Child, and fitness Instructor Pia Carson- Moore, have criticised the government's decision to make calorie counts on menus mandatory - Credit: frantic00/iStock/Getty Images Plus / Warren Page/ Pagepix / Emma Ratcliffe

The Suffolk-based eating disorder organisation Wednesday's Child has criticised the government's plan to make calorie labelling on menus mandatory from April 2022. 

In a week where indoor hospitality across the county has reopened, the organisation based in Melton near Woodbridge, think the bill supported by Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill, will  "exacerbate" mental health challenges. 

Deborah Moore from Wednesday Child

Deborah Watson is the founder of Wednesday's Child, a Suffolk-based not for profit eating disorders organisation, based in Melton near Woodbridge - Credit: Warren Page/ Pagepix

The new regulations, aimed at tackling obesity,  will mean cafes, restaurants and takeaways in England with 250 or more employees, will have to display calorie information on physical and online menus. 

Debbie Watson, founder of Wednesday's Child, said: "An elevated awareness of calorie levels is often a factor in someone succumbing to an eating disorder, or remaining stuck in the grasp of this devastating mental illness.

"Evidence shows that the issue of labelling simply exacerbates disordered thoughts, which leads to the very behaviours which we as an organisation spend our time trying to help individuals and families gain freedom from."

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Miss Watson added: "While of course we understand the government’s desire to reduce obesity, this kind of tactic is continually shown to have little truly beneficial impact on public health, and in fact is risking a focus on ‘shaming’ rather than anything which truly achieves positive emotional and behavioural change for people of all body size.

"This focus is particularly ill-judged, not least because calories alone are not a clear indicator of health and certainly not a way of helping a person form a sustainable and appropriate relationship with food for the long-term.”

Pia Carson-Moore

Pia Carson-Moore is a fitness instructor from Ipswich, when she was younger she said counting calories severely impacted her life - Credit: Emma Ratcliffe

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Pia Carson-Moore, 26, said her issues with food started when she was around 18 years old and described the way she used to "torture herself" counting calories and obsessively exercising.

The fitness instructor from Ipswich who now thankfully has a healthy relationship with food and exercise, said: " It was one of the worst feelings I have had in my life." 

She said: " My disordered eating involved bingeing and restricting.

"I would really restrict myself all day, count and be on really minimal calories, just to have a binge at the weekend or in the evening. 

"I didn't realise until recently how much it really impacted me.

"I can't imagine what it would of been like three or four years ago seeing there was a thousand calories in a cooked breakfast and thinking 'I can't have that, because if I do I will have to go to the gym twice today'.

"The government are trying to tackle obesity but I don't think it is going to work. 

"It is a mental health thing, because in some cases being overweight or being obese is caused by a disorder as well.

"Those people have an obsession with food, which is the same with underweight people.

"They just need more help with their mental health if it is something that they are battling with." 

Pia Carson-Moore pictured in Ipswich

Miss Carson-Moore believes that displaying calorie counts on menus may be triggering for those recovering from eating disorders or disordered eating. - Credit: Emma Ratcliffe

The government has said that part of the legislation will be a requirement for businesses to provide a menu without calorie information at the request of the customer - for those who may find viewing calorie information "more difficult". 

However Miss Carson-Moore is sceptical of this idea as she believes that many people recovering from eating disorders or disordered eating will not be ready to talk about it. 

She said: "If you are going out with family, friends, or colleagues the last thing you are going to want to do is say ' I don't want to see the menu with calories on' because it triggers questions." 

'Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening conditions'

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care, where Suffolk based MP Jo Churchill is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary, said: " Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening conditions and having one can be devastating for an individual and their family and friends. It’s imperative we ensure people get the right support, at the right time and we are expanding mental health services.

“With over six in 10 adults, and more than one in three children aged 10-11 years, overweight or obese, it is more important than ever we ensure people are equipped with the information they need to make better and more informed healthier food choices.”  

Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dr Dan Poulter, who specialises in the field of mental health, said: “Clearly in any public health intervention, the risks and benefits of the change must be evaluated carefully.  

"The UK faces an ever-growing obesity crisis, with around one in four of adults now either overweight or obese.  

"Obesity is associated with a large range of poor health outcomes, including increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and reduced life expectancy.

"We have to do more to tackle the obesity crisis, so in the context of the obesity challenge that we face, it makes sense to help people to better understand what they are eating and how many calories they are consuming. 

 “People with anorexia will calorie count with or without food labels, and it would be wrong to conflate the issue of food labelling with anorexia and eating disorders.  

"The very real healthcare challenge in eating disorders is to provide more, better and much earlier help and support to patients and their families.” 

Where can you turn to for support? 

- You can contact Wednesday's Child via their website.  

- BEAT provides support nationally for those with eating disorders. 

- You can also receive mental health support from the Samaritans. 

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