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Mental health experts call for restaurants to offer calorie-free menus

Mental health experts are calling for restaurants and cafés in Birmingham to offer calorie-free menus to support young people recovering from eating disorders.

In April 2022, Parliament passed legislation making it compulsory for restaurants, cafés and takeaways with more than 250 employees to print calorie labels on menus. This can make an already challenging situation harder for people with an eating disorder. 

Teams from Forward Thinking Birmingham's (FTB) Specialist Eating Disorder service (SEDS) have launched an ‘Eating Out Without The Calorie Count’ campaign to encourage restaurants to offer a calorie-free menu option to support young people in recovery.

Dr Sheryllin McNeil, Consultant Clinical Psychologist within SEDS said: “For people who are affected by and recovering from eating disorders, the presence of calorie labelling on menus is potentially unhelpful and possibly damaging to their wellbeing and recovery.”

Kirsty Kirsty Stapledon, 22, from Birmingham, works with the SEDs team. As one of FTB’s Children’s Hospital Charity funded Peer Supporters, she uses her lived experience of having an eating disorder to support service users.

She said: "When I heard the news about the new legislation, it sparked something in me. While I consider myself recovered from my eating disorder, it made me worry about my mental health and if it would influence how I act at a restaurant.

"I've done so much work to get to a better place, and this feels like it's stopping me from just going out and enjoying my experience at a restaurant. For those currently struggling with eating disorders, seeing calories on menus could hinder their ongoing recovery process."

Kirsty is part of the Eating Disorder Peer Recovery group that was formed to address issues that could hinder recovery and support young people in SEDs.

She explained: "When someone with an eating disorder is in recovery, we're trying to learn that food is more than numbers; it's about nutrition and the benefits to your body. Having that calorie-free menu option would support and help our service users who are recovering."

Jessica Sharman, a Peer Support Worker who is also part of the Eating Disorder Peer Recovery group, explained: “Seeing calories displayed on menus can be a huge challenge for people with experience of eating disorders. To me, it feels like a reminder of all the times I obsessed over calorie counting and could not sit and enjoy a meal without guilt and shame afterwards.”

Calorie counting is a common method that people use to try to maintain a certain body weight or eat according to specific dietary rules and sometimes occurs in eating disorders.

“I am now better able to deal with these triggers, but I know for many it is a great barrier to their recovery. It takes away from what going out for a meal should be, enjoying ourselves and spending time with loved ones.”

A mum whose daughter is being cared for in Birmingham Women's and Children's NHS Foundation Trust’s inpatient Mental Health Services has also spoken about the campaign. She said: “When we go for meals, it should be a treat and a nice thing to do as a family, but having calories on menus adds anxiety to what should be a pleasant outing.

“When there are calories on menus, I can see how difficult it is for my daughter who is struggling with an eating disorder. If we had that option to request calorie-free menus ahead of time, it would take away so much stress and help us to normalise eating out and once again make it an enjoyable experience.”

Dr Sheryllin McNeil added: “It has been a real honour to work alongside our Peer Support workers on this important issue that recognises the detrimental impact the presence of calories on menus can have on an individual’s journey to recovery.

“We recognise that much of this work is done outside the clinics in the communities we live in, so this particular community engagement project is an important step in supporting people affected by eating disorders to reclaim their lives.”

Sarah-Jane Marsh, Chief Executive of Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, which runs FTB, said: “It was truly inspiring to meet with our fantastic Specialist Eating Disorder Team recently to hear about all the amazing work they are doing, including this important and potentially life-changing campaign.

“We want our young people and families to be supported in their recovery with calorie-free menu options, and recovery-friendly restaurants will help them and others to enjoy eating out with their friends and loved ones again without triggering anxieties.

“We are encouraging all restaurants and cafés in our city and region to contact our team to discuss how they can support this important campaign.”

SEDS is calling on Birmingham restaurants or cafés to support their campaign and offer calorie-free menus. You can find out more on how to get involved on the Forward Thinking Birmingham website.

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