CW: Eating disorders
Every time I eat in a restaurant I am reminded of the stress of eating out when my sister had anorexia. There’s only so many times you can ask a waiter ‘to come back later’, to sit for thirty minutes whilst she stares at a menu, obsessively reading the ingredients list as my parents near a rage. You’ve probably not witnessed a teenage girl sample almost all the ice creams available – a staggering range in this particular shop – before deciding on which scoop to place on her waffle cone (though skipping the bubble-gum, or the ones evidently heavy in sugar). For her, it was also important that if she was going to eat she needed to enjoy it; try all the ice-creams to ensure that you knew with absolute certainty that you were eating the best one. For me – twelve, at the turn of puberty – seeing the smile of the assistant turn to strained frustration as she struggled to hurry my sister along, the queue rapidly increasing, was painful and embarrassing. Then the situation turned to trauma when my parents’ attempts to negotiate with my sister became restrained anger. Any trip to a restaurant, any snack, would only be possible if planned in advance so that my sister could herself mentally prepare. You announce a spontaneous waffle to someone with anorexia and you’ve got a fight on your hands. Though for me these memories may be traumatic – it’s never reassuring to see your family argue, or your sister be taken over by a parasite that you don’t recognise as her – I cannot imagine how difficult these moments must have been for her to live them, to fight against the all-consuming voice in her head.
The government, in their wisdom, has recently made it mandatory for businesses of over 250 employees to display the calorie content of the food and drinks they serve. Whilst this has been widely accepted by the hospitality industry as a policy aimed at reducing obesity, an issue we can all agree does need to be addressed, this is not the way to do it. That is not a statement of opinion, but a statement of fact. Calories have been mandated on menus in US restaurants since 2018 and have since done nothing to reduce the amount of calories in food, or to counter obesity. A report from 2012 even suggests that calorie labelling encourages consumers to buy products with more calories, not fewer. Increased calorie labelling has been discussed for a long time, alongside its clear ineffectiveness.
For those without an eating disorder, the calorie statistic is quickly forgotten when browsing a menu. Yet the leading eating disorder charity Beat has stressed that ‘calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds’. Personally, I think it is best to describe the anorexic mind as Edi. When I was first introduced to the term, sitting on my Mum’s bed whilst she forced us to listen to an extract from an eating disorder support guide, he was merely an ‘Eating Disorder Individual’. But naming the ‘voice in the head’, giving it an identity separate to the individual’s own (to me he’s most assuredly male), has since made anorexia much more understandable to me. You see, Edi thrives off calorie information. My Mum’s fury as she ripped the traffic light sticker off a packet of doughnuts, so my sister wouldn’t be obsessed by the trio of red blotches, has never left my mind. Calorie labels have been widely attacked on all fronts by those with any sort of experience with eating disorders. Whilst the government highlights that the pandemic has revealed the ‘impact that obesity can have on people’s health and health outcomes’, it has also led to a stark and worrying increase in those suffering from eating disorders. The number of young people accessing treatment for eating disorders has risen by two-thirds since before the pandemic. It seems ironic given the government’s actions that in reporting this statistic the NHS listed ‘a preoccupation with checking calorie or other ingredient content in food’ as a top indicator of an eating disorder.
So where does this leave those who struggle against Edi, around 2% of the population? Take Claire Finney, reflecting on her own struggle with anorexia, writing in The Guardian: ‘When I was unwell, restaurants were a rare and special refuge; a place where, because I couldn’t easily count them, calories were off the table.’ Research has suggested that calorie labelling decreases the number of calories chosen in those with anorexia and bulimia, and increases the number of calories in meals chosen by those with binge eating disorder. Why should a policy that provides no proven benefit to the majority be passed with great harm to the minority?
You may, like me, have noticed the plethora of posts shared on Instagram in recent weeks offering advice for that 2%. However, the focus should not just be the struggle this policy forces on those diagnosed with an eating disorder. Edi lives inside us all, a parasite perhaps buried, or kept at bay, or able to consume an entire mindset. Edi is ever present within myself, when I – depressed, tired, maybe lonely – consume enough chocolate to make me feel sick and criticise my actions. Edi was the reason I stupidly used an exercise bike whilst isolating with Covid because I hadn’t exercised for a while and worried about my weight, a decision my body didn’t need as it made me throw up almost immediately afterwards. He is with me when I look at my body and feel like I have got fatter, my belly bulgier. I have always said that I never fully understood anorexia until I started to go through puberty and was faced with that ever-present feeling of self-doubt, of worthlessness; that you are not good enough, your body not good enough, ugly even. This is Edi and all he lives off.
Displaying calorie information on menus is a step towards furthering a culture that believes food is the enemy and a poison that only leads to obesity and ill-health, rather than a vital element of human life. Seeing calories as the be all and end all of food and health ignores the complex web of wonderful benefits food has, whether in its nutrients, or in the social ability it grants people to connect to others, to share a moment together. Calorie information does not just harm the 2% diagnosed with an eating disorder, it harms us all. The many articles published recently with the headline ‘Which high street meals are the most and least fattening?’ (take The Guardian for an example) reflects a highly damaging fetishization of calorie content. How many calories a person eats in a restaurant, and its effect on their health, means nothing if not compared to the food they eat outside of that meal, the amount of exercise they do, or the needs they have as an individual in response to their own health. Nor is calorie counting itself in any way a healthy process.
We can all agree that obesity is an issue, but the action of this government has done nothing to counter the complex web of reasons that has led to its rise. As Stuart Flint, the director of Obesity UK, has recently said: ‘Obesity is very complex. If it was as simple as eating less or more, people wouldn’t gain weight to the extent we have at the moment, and people would be able to lose weight more easily.’ Obesity, as well as eating disorders, is ingrained in a relationship with our own mental health and the position of food within this. For instance, research has shown that up to 30% of people seeking support to lose weight could be diagnosed with binge eating disorder. The relationship between obesity and eating disorders must be acknowledged. The government has categorically done nothing to respond to this complexity. Their actions may be an easy measure to grant the illusion they are taking action against obesity, but the policy is only targeted to a specific setting where the majority of the general public do not even consider the calories they are eating, that is except for those with Edi shouting in their head. You cannot solve obesity without changing the way that we engage with food. You cannot solve obesity without considering that other side of the coin, without considering those with eating disorders, without considering the Edi parasite.
Beat provides information and support for anyone affected by an eating disorder. You can call their student helpline at 0808 801 0811, or visit them at beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
In Oxfordshire, professional help can be accessed through CAMHS Eating Disorder Service (https://www.oxfordhealth.nhs.uk/camhs/ed/) or Cotswold House (https://www.oxfordhealth.nhs.uk/cotswoldhouse/).
Artwork by Ben Beechener.