What Calorie Labelling does to People with Binge Eating Disorder

Trigger warning: description of binge eating.

A few nights ago, I went out for dinner for the first time since lockdown lifted here in the UK.

After months of being stuck at home, I sat in the restaurant with a big grin on my face, soaking up the atmosphere.

I was quite hungry but, as usual, took my time exploring the menu. Like a buzzard circling its prey, I was on the lookout for the dish that would truly satisfy me.

I knew I’d found it when I got that familiar “eureka” moment. Something in me said “that’s it!”. Instinctively, I knew it was exactly what I felt like eating and that I’d enjoy it.

I made my choice without judgement – either of the food or of myself.

When my meal arrived, I savoured it. It was delicious. When I got the signal from my body that I’d had enough, I stopped eating. The meal came to a natural and satisfying end.

Of course, this is me many years post-recovery from binge eating disorder.

My eating is instinctive and relaxed and I’ve worked damned hard – psychologically, emotionally and physically – to get it to that place. It doesn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes I’m not sure what I want. Occasionally I overeat. But it’s OK: I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Developing trust in yourself and your body is an essential part of recovery from any kind of emotion-driven overeating. You learn to tune out diet culture directives about calories and fat grams, and learn to tune into your natural instinct and appetite.

This is how you begin to make peace with food.

How appalling then, that the UK Government has decided to introduce calorie labelling on all menus in restaurants with more than 250 employees from April next year.

Why is this so horrifying?

Let’s replay the scenario above with me pre-recovery and this new Government regulation.

I enter the restaurant feeling tense. After years of dieting, my head is full of what I “should” and “shouldn’t” eat. Food is either good or bad, and it’s all I think about from the moment I wake up until the minute I fall asleep.

I’m hungry and I really fancy a bowl of pasta. According to the calorie labelling on the menu, the dish I really want has a truck-load of calories in it – and, of course, I’m supposed to be losing weight.

I feel ashamed. I shouldn’t want it. I should just have a salad without the dressing like they taught us at the slimming club. But I’m hungry and I really feel like that bowl of pasta. Also, I’ve had a really tough day. I want something hot and satisfying, not something cold that won’t fill me up.

Oh God, I don’t know what to do. I feel really tense and anxious. And now the waitress is asking what I want to eat. She’s really slim so she’s probably judging me. I’d better order the salad. And then I guess I can have one of those low-calorie snack bar things when I get home.

The salad arrives. I don’t enjoy it but eat it anyway. I watch as other people tuck into their food with pleasure. I feel miserable. And hungry.

I have that low-calorie snack bar as soon as I get home. It doesn’t satisfy me. So I have another, and another. I look around for something else. What can I have? I know, I’ll have a spoonful of peanut butter on a Ryvita. I’m still hungry. OK, now I’ll have some zero-fat ice cream. But nothing’s hitting the spot.

Feeling upset and resentful, I wait until everyone else has gone to bed, and before I know it I’m grabbing everything I can get my hands on – bread, crisps, cheese, chocolate – and stuffing it into my mouth on autopilot. I feel so guilty I’ve broken my diet, that I’m eating to detach from feelings of failure and shame. Also, something in me wants to make up for all the food I’ve been missing out on.

Eventually, after beating myself up on an epic scale, I fall into bed feeling sick and wretched, vowing that things will be different tomorrow.

Does this strike a chord?

This is the reality for millions of people struggling with an overeating disorder.

The UK Government says they’re introducing the measure to “tackle obesity”. In reality, they’re colluding with diet culture and yet again failing people with eating disorders.

Because it’s not just people with binge eating disorder who will suffer. Everyone with any kind of eating disorder will be seriously impacted by this ill-conceived, reckless measure.

If you think this new regulation will help people “make better choices” or “choose healthier options”, please be aware these phrases are both triggering and patronising to people suffering with eating disorders.

We know what it is to eat “healthily”. Binge eating is a sign of psychological and emotional distress and people suffering with it deserve proper diagnosis and effective support.

Not another insensitive government initiative.

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The UK’s national eating disorders charity, B-eat, has organised a campaign to protest about the new calorie-labelling measure. It’s essential we speak up – find out how you can get involved here.

Mental Health and Weight Loss Ads

I was recently asked to contribute to an article on the mental health impact of weight loss advertising for Metro.

You can read the article here, but I also wanted to share with you the questions I was asked and the answers I gave.

Continue reading “Mental Health and Weight Loss Ads”

Summer Rewind: What’s The Big Deal About Exercise?

Here’s another post from the archives, this time exploring how it’s possible to find the same autonomy with movement, as it is with food. Hard to believe, I know, but true.

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“I’m just one of those people who hates exercise”. That’s what I used to say. And I believed it. Man, did I hate exercise. I felt angry (and guilty and ashamed) at the mention of the word and, I have to confess, I’m worried some of you may stop reading this post for the very same reason, but I hope not.

In the past, if a slim person said to me “I’m just going to the gym” I’d think “why the hell are you doing that? You’re already thin! You don’t need to go to the gym”. It was my assumption you only exercised to lose weight. It didn’t occur to me that people might exercise because they enjoyed it.

After all, what was enjoyable about exercise? Nothing. All that pain and sweating and discomfort. It felt like punishment.

Continue reading “Summer Rewind: What’s The Big Deal About Exercise?”

Why the UK Government is Getting it Wrong on Obesity

The Guardian recently reported the UK Government is planning to launch an “emergency drive” to reduce obesity rates in anticipation of a second Covid-19 wave later this year.

There’s concern Coronavirus disproportionately affects overweight and obese people. According to the article, the Government programme will be “based on encouraging people to reduce their calorific intake and lose weight rapidly”.

If accurate, the UK Government is acting on a dangerously incorrect assumption – that obesity is purely a physiological, rather than a psychological, issue.

It’s a mistake that’s made often.

Continue reading “Why the UK Government is Getting it Wrong on Obesity”

A World Without Dieting

If dieting never existed, what would your relationship with food be like?

Just think about it for a minute.

How would you eat if you’d never learnt to diet?

Would you wake up feeling confused and stressed about food?
Would you feel guilty and ashamed about eating something you “shouldn’t”?
Would you still binge? Label food as “good” or “bad”? Hate your body?

Continue reading “A World Without Dieting”

Expert Insight: Looking the Wrong Way

“Body image is quite independent of physical appearance. Someone with high self-esteem tends to view her body favourably, regardless of how she actually looks.  

The weak connection between body image and physical appearance means that changing your looks won’t guarantee a lasting improvement in self-esteem…you need to get past your appearance and focus on your other personal strengths as well.”

Rita Freedman, “Bodylove”

It may come as a surprise that body image really has nothing to do with how you look.

Continue reading “Expert Insight: Looking the Wrong Way”