Navigating calories on menus

Submitted by Belinda from Talk ED

In April of this year, the Government introduced measures requiring large hospitality businesses in England including cafes, restaurants and takeaways to display the calorie information of non-prepacked food and soft drink items. The Government claims that the reason behind this legislation is to allow consumers to make healthier and more informed choices when dining out or ordering takeaways. Understandably though, there have been many concerns from the eating disorders community about these new measures. In this blog, we aim to discuss factors surrounding the issue whilst also suggesting ways to avoid any negative impact these measures may result in.

Health & nutrition
The new legislation has been introduced in a bid to improve health, but will these measures really result in the intended outcome? There is very limited evidence that displaying the calorie content of meals leads to a change in eating habits for the general population. More importantly though lies another question: does the number of calories we eat actually relate to health? In reality, health is much more complicated than how many calories we ingest. Furthermore, even though these measures have been implemented to try to curb a so-called obesity epidemic, weight-gain and weight-loss are also not as simple as we’re led to believe, when it comes to calories. If these measures were really focussed on health, the information displayed might include the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats) as well as micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) of each meal, instead of the calories. This way, consumers could make an informed choice about the nutrition in each meal, which in itself could lead to greater empowerment in our decisions, instead of reducing our decisions into a numbers game. This in turn could evoke less shame, guilt or fear around the food choices we make, turning food into more of a friend than an enemy.

Appetite wisdom
Part of ED recovery involves reconnecting with and listening to our body’s natural cues for hunger and appetite. Our bodies are wise and if you’re craving something specific or even just really fancy a particular dish, it’s more than likely that your body is needing the sustenance that meal will provide. The display of calories on menus may give more space for the eating disorders in our minds to interrupt this mind-body connection and override the communication about what your body really needs.

Meaning of food
Food is so much more than a number. Part of developing a better relationship with food can include appreciating food as part of socialising, celebration, enjoyment, spontaneity and nourishment. If someone is trying to reduce calorie counting behaviours in order to move closer to some of these goals, having that number there on the menu has the potential to hinder and distract us from what we’re working towards.

Ways to reduce the impact of these new measures

Call ahead
If you’re concerned about receiving a menu with calories on it, why not try calling the restaurant beforehand to ask if their menu features calories. If so, you can request to be given a menu without calories on it.

Go independent
Displaying calories is only obligatory for bigger outlets and chains in England that employ more than 250 staff members . If you’re thinking of eating out and would prefer to avoid seeing calories on menus, why not consider going to an independent food retailer where they’re less likely to display calories for their meals. Most outlets that concentrate on serving local or seasonal food will be less inclined to display calories, as their menus are constantly changing.

Step out of your comfort zone
You could try making a promise to yourself that you’ll order exactly what you fancy, regardless of the calories stated. If you’re dining with someone else, you could let them know that this is your intention for that meal. Evidence shows that sharing an intention with another person gives better outcomes in following through with it.

If calories on menus is impacting you and your life, we are here to listen to any worries that you may have and to provide practical support and guidance.

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