If you're following me on Instagram (if you're not, you obviously should be - @trinityhandleypt), you may have already seen some of my initial opinions on the new government rule requiring restaurants to print the calories of each item on their menu. This move is part of government strategy to tackle the obesity 'crisis' but has been criticised for a number of reasons; the impact on people with a poor relationship with dieting and food, or those in recovery from an eating disorder being one huge concern. I spent the weekend catching up with friends and we had a number of meals out. Having struggled with an eating disorder, I wanted to reflect on the impact that this new rule had/will have on me, explain why I think the government is stupid for this decision in the first place, and also suggest some practical ways to help you to mitigate the impact of this rule on you, your friends or loved ones if you're concerned. So strap yourselves in for another rant from yours truly!
I don't track calories or stick to a diet or meal plan. A huge step in rebuilding my own relationship with food was to ignore calories, delete MyFitnessPal and start to tune into what my body actually needs and wants. I've also learnt more about how our bodies digest and utilise different macronutrients like protein and carbohydrates, all of which has allowed me to trust my body to do its thing, rather than trying to control every aspect of my food intake. An unintended consequence has been that my weight has actually decreased and stopped yo-yoing about all over the place as my body is no longer under stress. The main and actual intended consequence, and the one I care about, is that I'm about 100% happier and healthier than I was before. This recovery process has taken years and really has not been easy. Despite all of this, when sat down in a restaurant for a meal with my best friend who I'd not seen in over two years, it suddenly became very hard for me to gather my thoughts and choose a meal I genuinely wanted to eat because all I could focus on was the calories. I did actually stick with what I wanted (carbonara obvs), but what should have been a wonderful occasion became a wonderful occasion with a little niggling sense of guilt, just like old times.
Aside from bringing up old anxieties and fears, this new government rule fails to provide any education or proper insight into nutrition whatsoever. As a gym rat, the only macro I tend to take any notice of is protein (#gains). I went out to lunch yesterday with my grandparents and once again had to challenge myself to look past the calories and get what I actually wanted. I had a starter of whitebait with garlic and lemon aioli (yum) but this felt like a huge decision as it said 935 calories. Nutritionally though, this was actually a very good choice for me as I'd been to the gym in the morning and was looking for a high protein lunch. I'd estimate that the dish had upwards of 30g of protein as well as plenty of omega-3, calcium, vitamin E and iodine, and on reflection I think a decent proportion of the calories stated would have been in the aioli dip which was not specified. My point is that had I freaked out about the number of calories (which was very nearly the case and likely would be for lots of other people), I would have had a far less nutritious and healthy lunch. What the government has apparently failed to understand is that lower calories does not automatically equal more nutritious or more healthy and as such, without educating the population about the basics of nutrition, this rule may well make many people even less healthy than they already are! It is my opinion that if calories have to be on menus then so should the full breakdown of macros so people can make an informed decision about the things that actually matter.
This brings me to the crux of the matter which is that government is stupid 🙄. In this particular instance, the obesity strategy is stupid. There are so many complex factors that contribute to people putting on weight including stress, poverty (which is often a huge source of stress too), genetics, and much more. I'm currently studying for a Level 4 exercise specialist qualification and this is the incredibly interconnected web they've given us showing the contributing factors to obesity. Note how small the green circle labelled 'Food consumption' is compared to the range of other factors...
All the black lines connect various factors together and just a glance at this diagram is surely enough to realise that simply 'eating less' and putting calories on menus is an absolutely and utterly useless measure, and one that we should all be frankly angry that the government has decided is an appropriate way to tackle the chronic health and social problems in this country. There is also an ever increasing amount of evidence showing that the medical profession and industry is, like our general population, affected by significant weight-based stigma and discrimination and also more and more evidence showing that weight is not a predictor of health, that 'excess' weight is not only not a cause of disease and death, but that it's a protective factor for morbidity. It is disappointing that doctors still prescribe weight-loss and diets to ill patients when the statistics are so clear that diets will not work and their patients are 95% likely to gain back the same weight if not more within 5 years. It's even more disappointing that the government has introduced this rule about calories on menus which does nothing but contribute further to misinformation about nutrition, increases body-shaming and discrimination, and exacerbates disordered eating habits and pressure on individuals. I did write to my MP last year to express my disappointment and concern about calories on menus, but was clearly that was futile...
So anyway, what can we do to mitigate the potentially harmful and damaging impact of these rules? Firstly, it's important to know that restaurants should be able to supply a menu without calories on it upon request. My advice, and what I will be doing from now on, is to ask for one as you are welcomed into the restaurant, before you sit down. If you're booking in advance you may be able to request one before you even arrive. If you're taking any kids or teenagers out with you, definitely get one for them even if you don't want/need one yourself.
Secondly, refrain from mentioning calories or diets at the table if you're eating with anyone else. This should never happen anyway but with menus prompting people to think or consider calories, these conversations are sadly more likely to crop up. Dinners out are not a normal occurrence for most people - they often represent a special treat, celebration or occasion. As such, it's important to cherish these moments and memories for the connection and the occasion, not start conversations about diets, bodies and weight. Food is part of the event, not the whole event. And also remember that even if you're not bothered by it at all, the person sat opposite you, or on the next table might be.
Thirdly, if you're with someone who you know has a complicated or disordered relationship with food, offer to ask for a menu without calories for the both of you. Bring up the conversation yourself and be proactive. It would not be surprising if your friend/family member may be too embarrassed or self-conscious to ask for one on their own. And if they do ask for one, be an ally and ask for one too so they don't feel as though they're expressing their vulnerability alone!
Fourthly, when thinking about what you want to eat, various things will always tend to factor into your decision; what else have you eaten today (i.e. are you hungry? Would you benefit from some more veg, some decent protein, some proper carb energy?) What do you genuinely like or want? What is your budget? What have you tried and enjoyed before? Ignore the calories and try and tune into what your body is telling you it wants and needs. Trust yourself to listen to your hunger cues too. Calories are just a tiny factor within the decision so don't allow them to be the only consideration.
If you're actively struggling with an eating disorder, you can also check out Beat's advice which is more comprehensive here.
Finally, I think it's important to remember that every. single. person. has a different basal metabolic rate and as such, we all require different amounts of calories every day. The 2000 calories a day advice is not accurate. As an active person for my age, my caloric intake to maintain weight is around 2,400, if not more. Whilst this blog post was only focussing on calories on menus and wasn't supposed to tell you how many calories you should be eating or anything, I'd strongly encourage you to start learning more about nutrition and what your body actually needs. Knowledge is power. You're amazing. And the government sucks.