Cara Lisette, 31, lives with her partner in Hampshire and campaigns on mental health and eating disorders. With 16% of the UK adult population suffering from an eating disorder, Lisette is worried that new legislation stating that restaurants must label their menus with the calorie content of each meal could be dangerously triggering.
The move was created to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis, but eating disorder charities and campaigners believe it will negatively impact those with eating disorders such as anorexia.
Here Lisette shares her own powerful story:
Even now, over a year on from my last recovery, I love being able to sit down with friends and family over a lovely meal. I want to take pleasure in the colours, smells and flavors of the food and experience the joy of a social gathering.
It’s a really important part of any recovery for someone with an eating disorder. Yet as someone who has struggled with anorexia for nearly two decades, this still causes some problems.
Fighting the obsession
Every time a plate of delicious food is put in front of me or I’m handed a menu listing lots of tempting dishes, a mental calculator automatically appears in my brain, working out every single calorie I’m about to eat. I don’t want it there.
When I was a teenager and hospitalised with my illness, this calculator would be ticking over constantly, relentlessly working out the maths of how many calories I was eating compared to how many I was using up. It was completely exhausting.
Today, that calculator appears less often and what’s more I can choose to ignore it, choosing the most tempting dish on the menu, rather than the lowest in calories.
Dark side of calorie-counting
But earlier this month, that option was taken away from me. Now, legislation is in place requiring restaurants and cafes to label their menus with the calorific content of each food.
These numbers will be staring me in the face and as one of more than a million people in the UK suffering from an eating disorder, I believe this could cause more harm than good.
My own problems with body image started when I was around eight years old. I didn’t know it at the time but there is a history of anorexia in my family and I grew up around talk of ‘good foods’, ‘bad foods’ and ‘diets’.
A hidden battle
But it wasn’t until I was around 12 that my eating disorder took hold. I began to eat less and less, I became secretive around food and was lying to others about what I’d eaten.
Mealtimes would cause stress and anxiety and I had many arguments with my mum, who was clearly very worried about my decreasing weight.
She took me to the GP who referred me to the Child and Adult Mental Heath Service (CAMHS) where I’d go to weekly therapy sessions.
Hospitalised for six months
But by 15, my eating disorder was so serious that I was admitted as an in-patient in hospital for six months. There, I’d continue my studies with other children and have psychiatric assessments and therapies.
I got better for about a year, but then needed more treatment and therapy in my late teens and twenties. It’s been up and down most of my life.
Anorexia is a complicated illness and when I was younger, I can’t say it even scared me. The more sick I became, the less insight I had into my own illness and it seemed it was other people who were more worried.
But as I’ve got older, I’ve become more scared. I’m more aware of how vulnerable I am and I know that my body and health doesn’t recover as quickly and there’s much more at stake.
The last time I was seriously ill, I had to take six months off work. I’m fortunate that my body hasn’t been affected by conditions like osteoporosis that can affect the bones of somebody with anorexia. But the longer it goes on, the more at risk I am.
Controversial new law
When I first heard of the proposed legislation to add calories to menus, I knew immediately it was a dreadful idea. One of the worst things about having an eating disorder is social isolation. You don’t want to be around people talking about diets and foods and you don’t want to draw attention to your own eating habits.
Read more: Eating disorders need to be seen as an emergency, says campaigner Hope Virgo
Eating out should be a joyful experience, sociable and fun. We don’t do it every day so it should be a treat. Placing calories on a menu sucks away that joy.
I know from bitter experience that most people with a restrictive eating disorder will usually opt for the lowest calorie food on a menu, rather than what they fancy eating.
Triggering food guilt
I’ve even noticed on Twitter that people who don’t have an eating disorder are also saying that seeing the calories makes them feel more guilty – the last emotion you want around food.
What about making the calorie count menu optional? Even then, I’d be worried about what message that sends. Would it make people wonder that the people who asked for that menu were on a diet or had an eating disorder?
Proponents of the legislation would argue that it’s there to help people make healthy choices and to tackle the obesity crisis. Labelling calories on food packets has been done for years and it has made no difference to rates of obesity, there is no evidence that it works.
Read more: What to say when someone’s struggling
My recovery is going well and I can honestly say that I’m at my healthiest yet. But I’m genuinely worried about how much of a setback this might cause and how much it’s going to restrict the freedoms I was starting to enjoy again.
Like so many others, I won’t be able to ignore that calculator when the numbers are there in black and white.
For support visit Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorders charity.
Cara’s blog can be found at: www.caras-corner.com
Watch: Bella Hadid reflects on her battle with an eating disorder