Eating disorder charity urges Scottish Government to avoid menu calorie labels

The UK’s leading eating disorder charity has called on the Scottish Government to scrap plans to label menus with calories.

Beat said the move could have a damaging impact on people trying to recover from or living with disordered eating habits.

A Scottish Government consultation, due to close on Friday, is asking for the public’s views on proposals to make calorie labelling on menus mandatory in food outlets such as businesses, takeaways, restaurants and hospitals.

The idea has been put forward to help reduce obesity in Scotland which, with two-thirds of the population recorded as being overweight or obese, continues to be one of the country’s biggest public health challenges.

Dr Stephen Anderson, a consultant psychiatrist in eating disorders, said there is no good evidence that calorie labelling on menus is effective in reducing obesity.

Beat surveyed almost 200 people who have or have had an eating disorder, or who have supported a friend or family member with an eating disorder, to find out how they felt about the legislation.

The charity said 95% of respondents were against the proposal.

The survey showed concerns were that calorie labelling on menus would increase feelings of fear and guilt, encourage eating disorder behaviours such as restrictive eating, and make recovery more difficult.

One anonymous repsondent said: “It took me years to un-learn calorie counting and to find joy in food again – to have it displayed so openly, to potentially hear friends discuss it right in front of me, would be very triggering and harmful.”

More than half of those who responded said they felt they would go out to eat less frequently if the legislation was introduced, and several people mentioned that eating meals out is an important stage of eating disorder recovery.

An occupational therapist who responded to Beat’s survey, who remained anonymous, said: “An important part of my role in supporting people’s recovery is reintroducing and normalising eating out.

“The introduction of calorie labelling would make this incredibly important work even more challenging at such a crucial stage of recovery.”

Others said calorie labelling would “reinforce unhealthy perceptions around nutrition and eating”, and that calories are only one of many factors that determine the nutritional value of food.

Asked for alternatives to calories on menus, some survey respondents suggested the Government could introduce optional menus or QR codes with calories included, but that menus without calories should be the default.

Dr Anderson added: “Suggesting that people need a specific number of calories does not take into account the individual’s physiology, gender, race and activity.

“This could be particularly harmful for children and young people where limiting calorie and nutritional intake can have significant impacts on development.

“A wider public health initiative looking at social and economic determinants of obesity and improving the population’s nutrition is likely to be more beneficial than listing calorie content on menus.”

Tom Quinn, from Beat, said damage has already been done in England to people affected by eating disorders after the legislation became law in April.

“The Scottish Government must protect people affected by eating disorders by avoiding making calorie labelling on menus mandatory across the nation,” he said.

“This should include taking an evidence-based, inclusive approach with health policies and involving eating disorder clinicians and experts by experience at every stage of the process.”

He said demand for eating disorder support has “skyrocketed” during the pandemic and people who have been in recovery for a long time are distressed about the proposed legislation.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We take eating disorders seriously and will fully consider all consultation responses in relation to them. We recognise that this is an opportunity to identify potential unintended consequences, and any necessary mitigation measures, should mandatory calorie labelling be introduced.

“The consultation remains open until 1 July and we would encourage all those with an interest to take part and share their views.”

Beat said at least 1.25 million people in the UK are struggling with an eating disorder at any given time.

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