As a resident of Ontario who struggles with an eating disorder (ED), the Healthy Menu Choices Act has been the bane of my existence. The act — which forces restaurants with 20 or more locations in Ontario to openly display calorie counts for items on their menu — was intended to encourage people to make healthier decisions about what they eat and feed their families, but for people who have struggled with mental illnesses like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder, constantly being faced with calorie counts can be detrimental to your health.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) at the toll-free helpline at 1-866-633-4220.If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) at the toll-free helpline at 1-866-633-4220.
Interestingly, a study highlighted in the New York Times revealed that calorie postings don’t change most people’s eating habits. New York implemented a similar law of their own back in 2008, mandating calorie listings on chain restaurant menus, but according to the study, “people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect.”
What does that mean? While most people are disregarding the calorie listings, some of the most vulnerable people — including those with EDs who count calories in a way that can only be described as addictive — are put at risk.
“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” lead author of the study, Brian Elbel, explained in an interview. Plus, counting calories disregards other important components of nutrition like whether you’re eating a balanced diet or getting enough protein.
As the CBC notes, the Healthy Menu Choices Act “was designed to give people more information about the calories they’re consuming when eating out so they can make healthier choices, but experts are concerned that posting the numbers can be a constant reminder to people struggling with eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia.”
Related: I Tried Eating at a Restaurant Alone, Here’s What I Learned
How has the Healthy Menu Choices Act effected me as someone with an eating disorder?
As someone with Anorexia Nervosa, I can personally attest to the harm that calorie listings can cause. There was a time in my life where counting calories was second nature. While my high school classmates would be scribbling their names of their crushes, I would sit for a meal and religiously scrawl down the calories into the closest notebook or calorie tracking app. I’d tally up every sip, bite and crunch in my day and subtract calories burned from each and every step I took. I was meticulous, counting and recounting over and over, working off calories by going for runs or doing late night workouts until I would go to bed and do it all again.
There was a time in my life where counting calories was second nature.
I can’t imagine what would have happened if calories were so accessible at the height of my eating disorder, but even now — 10 years into my recovery process — when I’m faced with the calories that I’m eating, I’m still bogged down with toxic thoughts telling me to pick something else with fewer calories or to skip out on the restaurant all together and cook something lighter at home. Although I may not act on the instinct, my day is constantly tarnished by harmful thoughts and dangerous mindsets.
Calorie listing and its impact on overcoming eating disorder “Fear Foods”
A pivotal part of the ED recovery process is overcoming “Fear Foods” — foods that cause someone to feel extreme fear, shame or anxiety after eating them. For example, when I was really struggling with my ED, I tied a lot of guilt to burgers, one of the most common foods you can find at a chain restaurant. So, at the height of my recovery, I was encouraged by my therapist and my family to overcome that fear, and the only way to do that was by eating the food and carrying on with my day (which may seem like an easy task to the average person, but for someone with an eating disorder it can feel like the most daunting thing in the world).
Fear foods are often high calorie meals like burgers, pizza, fries and other fast foods served up at most chain restaurants. Now that calorie listings are not only readily available, but are placed right in front of your eyes, these pivotal moments around overcoming fear foods are often tainted by being faced head-on with the calorie count. Thus, something that already seems like an impossible task for someone with an ED can be even more difficult, as you’re not only confronting your biggest fear, but you’re coming face-to-face with the root cause of it all.
Now that I’m so far into the recovery process, I’d do anything to stop myself from slipping back and relapsing. I’m painstakingly thorough when it comes to preventative measures: I go to therapy, I have a community to rely on when I’m struggling and I never ever let myself count calories — which is tough when the number is staring at you, plastered across an eye-catching menu or a giant, colourful board above a counter.
Now that I’m so far into the recovery process, I’d do anything to stop myself from slipping back and relapsing.
Personally, I’d be way more capable of combating thoughts around calorie counting if I didn’t have the number thrown into my face each and every time I sat down at a chain restaurant.
And that’s just me. According to the National Initiative for Eating Disorders, approximately 1 million Canadians have an eating disorder diagnosis. Plus, as the Journal of the American Medical Association points out, there’s been a 60 per cent rise in EDs compared to before the pandemic and a report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) details that hospitalizations for young women with EDs increased by almost 60 per cent since March 2020.
The danger of eating disorders and calorie counting
Not only do EDs often go undiagnosed, but they also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, falling somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent, as reported by the 2019 to 2029 Canadian Eating Disorders Strategy. In fact, “for females aged 15 to 24 years old, the mortality rate associated with [anorexia] is 12 times greater than that of ALL other causes of death combined.” This makes it even more dangerous to have something as triggering as calorie counts listed across something as easily accessible and in-your-face as a menu.
People with eating disorders are more at risk than ever, and they’re often “calorie counting every bite, every sip that goes into their body,” Leta Merchand, clinical manager at the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association in Windsor, tells CBC. “Some of them have found it triggering for their own recovery process, making it difficult to make food choices.”
So, while the Healthy Menu Choices Act aims to target obesity, calorie labelling also induces anxiety and amplifies harmful eating disorder behaviours in already vulnerable populations. Something as simple as removing the calorie counts from the menu can not only make a restaurant a safer space, but it can even be life-saving for those at the peak of their ED journey — I know it would make a huge difference for me.
Read more: How I Found the Joy in Cooking After Struggling with an Eating Disorder