Calorie Labels on Menus: Supporting Young People to Cope with the New Law

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Last year, the UK government introduced a new law mandating businesses with over 250 employees to introduce calorie labels on their menus. For young people living with eating disorders, these changes may make things like going out for dinner or eating lunch with friends more difficult to cope with. This blog offers some advice on how young people with disordered eating can manage calorie labels on menus, enjoy eating out with others, and continue their recovery.

Why Are Calorie Labels on Menus Sometimes Distressing for Young People?

During the planning stages of the new law, many experts on eating disorders spoke out against the proposals. Eating disorder charities such as Beat raised their concerns about calorie labels on menus and urged the government to drop their plans. Many young people living with or in recovery from eating disorders also protested against the changes, signing petitions against the new law.

They raised concerns that calorie labels had the potential to:

  • Encourage an unhealthy preoccupation with calorie counting and restricting calorie intake, a common behaviour among people with eating disorders
  • Cause additional anxiety and distress for people with eating disorders having food at restaurants
  • Make it harder for people with eating disorders to eat in restaurants and other public places
  • Complicate or impede the recovery of people with eating disorders, for whom choosing and eating food in public spaces can play a role in their recovery journey

These concerns are supported by research showing that people with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa order significantly fewer calories when labels displayed calorie counts than when they did not. Similarly, individuals with binge eating disorders order meals with more calories.

Despite these concerns, the UK government went ahead with the changes – and many restaurants in other countries also put calorie labels on their menus. While this may make eating out more difficult for some young people, there are some tips they can try that may help them to cope with calorie labels and enjoy eating out with others.

Asking for a Calorie Free Menu

While restaurants are not obliged to have a calorie-free menu, they are permitted to offer one. However, because of the way the new law works, you will have to ask for it. You might want to contact the restaurant in advance or check if they have a calorie-free menu online to make the process a bit easier.

Going Menu-Free

Young people may like a friend or family member to read the menu to them so they don’t have to look at the calorie counts. You could also ask the server not to give you a menu at all. Remember, it’s important to ask a young person with disordered eating how they would like to handle the situation, rather than imposing your own ideas of what support means.

Choosing Meals Beforehand

Some young people may find it helpful to decide what they would like to eat before they get to the restaurant, to avoid being overwhelmed by calorie labels. This may help them to choose what they want to eat, rather than basing their decision on calories, keeping them away from thought patterns associated with disordered eating. They might also like to share their choice with friends or a family member in advance to feel sure that calories haven’t come into their decision.

Pick a Childhood Favourite

It may help a young person to choose something with emotional value, like a favourite food from their childhood, or something they loved to eat before they developed eating problems. Choosing food based on positive feelings or memories may help them to avoid focusing on calories and pick something they enjoy.

Supporting a Young Person Affected by the Law

There are many reasons why you may be worried about your child or another young person being affected by the law. They may have an eating disorder, have had one in the past, or find it difficult to eat with others. They may also have shared concerns with you about coping with calorie-free menus. Remember that eating problems can affect anyone and should be taken seriously even without a formal diagnosis – and always deserve attention, care, and support.

If you’re worried about a young person, you should listen to what they have to say. By listening, you can understand their feelings and how they would like to be supported. They might like support from you, or from another person they know, like a teacher or a friend – it’s important that you respect this.

If a young person would like you to support them, you could have a conversation about what this might look like. You could discuss some of the options listed above, as well as other suggestions like:

  • Sitting beside them during a meal
  • Having a practice meal beforehand

Seeking Professional Support

If a young person isn’t already seeking professional support, you could suggest that they reach out to a doctor or mental health professional, or contact one yourself. Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that require expert treatment and care. While this can feel scary, with effective support, full recovery is possible – and starting treatment earlier is associated with an easier recovery process.

There are lots of stereotypes surrounding eating disorders and what sorts of people they affect. In reality, however, eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, background, or ethnicity. Eating disorders also look different in each individual and may not take the form that you expect. It’s important to be open-minded and to take every concern that comes from a young person seriously.

The Wave: Specialist Treatment for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist recovery programs for young people living with eating disorders and other mental health conditions. We take a whole-person approach to each young person’s recovery journey, supporting them to introspect, explore new life paths, develop new skills, and grow. Our programs combine expert-led clinical care with education, skill building, and planning for the future, helping young people leave our centre ready to follow their dreams.

Lasting recovery from mental health issues isn’t easy. It requires a safe place, dedication, support, expertise, and time. At The Wave, we know what young people need, and we’re committed to each person’s well-being and future. 

If you have any questions or would like to start the admissions process, contact us today. Our specialist team is ready to support you.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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