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How to deal with new rules for restaurant menus if you’re worried they might be triggering

A leading eating disorder charity has slammed new laws requiring larger restaurants to display calories of food and drink on their menus.

New laws requiring large restaurants to list the calories on their menus have arrived, much to the dismay of those who want to enjoy their meal without being confronted by nutritional information.

The government says the new rules are designed to “ensure people are able to make more informed, healthier choices when it comes to eating food out or ordering takeaways,” and comes as part of a wider strategy to tackle obesity. 

Yet Beat, the UK’s leading charity supporting those affected by eating disorders, has slammed the decision, because calories on menus “can increase fixations on restricting calories for anyone with anorexia or bulimia.”

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TV personality and GP Dr Hilary Jones defended the new rules on ITV’s Lorraine, saying they shouldn’t be a “problem” for people with eating disorders because “people with the most serious eating disorders, anorexia, don’t go to restaurants and they know exactly how many calories are in everything.”

Beat’s director of external affairs, Tom Quinn, expressed his shock that someone “with a medical background would display such ignorance about eating disorders on such a public platform,” and urged the doctor to educate himself on the seriousness of these mental illnesses.  

Campaigner Hope Virgo, who survived anorexia, is asking the government to reconsider the new legislation through her campaign Dump The Scales, petitioning for the legislation to be reversed. 

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We spoke to Martha Williams, clinical advice coordinator at Beat, for some practical ways you might wish to shield yourself or cope with the changes, as well as suggestions for how to support someone at your table who might be struggling. 

Smaller cafes and restaurants are exempt so could be a better option 

Only cafes, restaurants and takeaways with 250 or more employees in England will be required to display the calorie information, so if you need another reason to support your local independent cafes, here it is. 

“You shouldn’t have to change where you eat,” says Williams, “but it might be helpful at first to avoid the bigger restaurants if you’d still like to go out for a meal with friends and have that social experience.”

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You can request a menu without a calorie count, though this may not be available 

Restaurants are allowed to offer a menu without calories upon request, however it is not a legal requirement for them to have one so be prepared that this may not be an option.

“Cafe’s could opt to have a menu without calories on, so I’d really recommend checking in with that restaurant to see if they have one available,” says Williams.

High street restaurant Wagamama has said it will now offer two menus, one with calories and one without on request, in order to prevent distressing customers with eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia.  

“After two years of working with our charity partners Young Minds, disordered eating for young people is something we’re acutely aware of,” said Wagamama CEO Thomas Heier.

“As calories become a legal necessity for all restaurants, we’ve decided to offer a non-calorie menu for guests suffering with a challenging relationship with food.”

It could feel awkward or anxiety-inducing to ask for a menu without calories, so Williams suggests calling ahead, or seeing if someone you’re with might be able to ask for you. 

Know your own nutritional needs

Alongside their menus, restaurants will have to display the message that “adults need around 2000 kcal a day.” 

Beat says this guidance is not in line with NHS guidelines, which state that “ideal daily intake of calories varies depending on age, metabolism and levels of physical activity, among other things”.

Remember that every individual has different nutritional and calorie needs, so consider your own first. 

“Calories are not the only measure of nutrition; there is so much more to a meal than actually just the calorie content,” says Williams. 

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You may want to set a time limit on looking at the menu

Choosing what to order from a menu can be overwhelming at the best of times, and Williams worries that having calorie counts next to each item will make these decisions even more difficult.

She suggests setting a time limit for how long to look at the menu, such as 30 seconds, then put the menu down. 

Alternatively, “if you’re overwhelmed and you can’t decide what to eat, what can be really helpful as you can always just order whatever family members having,” she continued. 

Advice for supporting a family member or friend at your table

If you’re booking or visiting a restaurant for a meal with someone you love that struggles with disordered eating, Williams suggests checking in with them to see what might be helpful – they will know best whether it’s distracting, comfort or something else that they need. 

“If you know you’re going out for lunch, it can be helpful to have something planned in for after the meal, as this can be the scariest time for someone who is feeling vulnerable,” suggests Williams. You could plan a walk or look around the shops so the lunch isn’t an isolated event, and you can both have something enjoyable to think about afterwards. 

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk

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