Emma de Saram
As Someone In Recovery, I Know Just How Dangerous Calorie Counts Can Be
I was diagnosed with anorexia in 2016 and have since been on a seemingly endless road of recovery, encountering diversions, stop signs, and what sometimes feels like plenty of dead ends. Anorexia deprived me of my personality and left a two-year shaped hole in my diary. Whilst my friends went to house parties and enjoyed the last years of school, I was meticulously scraping food into the sink and researching which zero-fat yogurt really was zero fat.
Coming out of an eating disorder into the ‘real’ world is terrifying. And especially into a society where diet culture, body image insecurity and obsessive exercise is so normalised. I say ‘society’ instead of ‘world’ since on a global level, food is entwined with global political issues especially around inequality and increasingly climate. I have been told by many friends not to ‘gaslight’ my mental illness by viewing it on a global scale. Therefore, I try to separate my personal experience from my global existence. Minimising personal suffering by comparison to ‘bigger’ problems is futile. Dismissing our suffering is unsustainable since we would not apply this principle universally; any form of suffering is significant.
In a society where calorie counting is already pretty ubiquitous, I was utterly shocked when I saw the UK government’s policy to enforce calorie labelling in restaurants as part of their anti-obesity campaign. When I heard this, I broke into tears. I had dedicated years of my life using up precious brain capacity calculating calories and I am still unlearning this disordered behaviour. I have forced my brain to rewire to look at food as necessary to exist, not as a number which will punish me and make me fat. I’m still getting over my fear of bread and slowly forgetting the exact calories of a Weetabix.
Yes, I know, obesity in the UK is a problem. But this policy will encourage a culture of restrictive eating and fatphobia. I live in a part of the world where restaurants are venues of joy and celebration. By reducing the experience to a transaction of calories for money, we are stripping food down to yet another number. It will inevitably cause us to compare calorie options, reinforcing ideas of guilt and shame by choosing a higher calorie option. I can only see this leading to scandalous headlines, restaurants bringing out low-calorie menus, zero fat desserts, and industries capitalising even more from our fears and self-loathing. It will only accelerate the mental health crisis.
My fear is that we will become so consumed by calorie counting and deficit, we will forget the joy of food and its nutritional values
Eating out for me still causes fear and anxiety. I have had to unlearn that the automatic response to an invitation to eat out is not ‘no’ and ‘dessert?’ is not an abhorrent suggestion which should naturally evoke an intense emotional outburst. I remember a time in the depths of anorexia, trawling the menu before a New Year’s family meal to find the lowest possible calorie option. When the waitress presented my lifeless cold green salad, it had a dressing on. I panicked and rushed to the bathroom. The intense anxiety caused by potentially having to consume oil to save even more awkward questions from my family members would have been made even worse if we were comparing calories. But I had all my excuses lined up – by this time I’d become pretty fluent in food avoidance strategies and fake allergies.
By normalising calorie conversation, we are converted into machines. From a scientific perspective, yes, calorie deficit equals weight loss - I’ve googled enough weight loss tips to know that. But my fear is that we will become so consumed by calorie counting and deficit, that we will forget the joy of food and its nutritional values.
I know that for a lot of people, this calorie measure will be useful. But I’m speaking out for the 1.25+ million adults with diagnosed eating disorders. We already know our calories and we are trying to wire our brains to re-learn that food is essential. Being underweight is just as severely damaging as being overweight and this policy will simply make our society more at risk of an eating disorder pandemic.
Last week I went out for lunch with my dad, afterwards he made a joke that I would go for a run later to burn it all off. I gave him a look of utter disgust and he apologised – I knew he was joking but it triggered an intense eating disorder feeling. Personally, I won’t be eating at any of these restaurants, not just because of the numbers, but to avoid all the potential triggers.
I would never wish my experience on anyone, but my fear is that other young people will be increasingly vulnerable to eating disorders if this strategy is implemented. The recovery community in the UK has come together over the last week on social media to express our disgust for the policy; I just hope our voices get heard.
If this is an issue you want to help tackle, please sign the petition set up by mental health campaigner Hope Virgo, and follow #curbthecount & #publichealthnotpublicshaming on social media.
Emma is a history student at Exeter University, where she is President of a running society promoting physical and mental wellbeing.
You can find her on Instagram @emmadesaram.