Concerns have been raised about government plans to put calories on menus, with one mum who struggled with anorexia and bulimia saying they could “undo all the hard work someone recovering from an eating disorder has put in”.
PR consultant Gemma Birbeck developed an eating disorder in her teens and dropped four dress sizes in a single summer due to her obsession.
She weighed just 8st and would eat a single slice of dry toast for breakfast and lunch – hiding rocks in her pockets when she got on the scales, to mask her weight loss.
The 32-year-old, from Bradford, West Yorkshire, said: “One of the things you learn in recovery is to avoid calorie counting, so you can develop a better relationship with food.
“You’re educated by a nutritionist so can ignore calorie counts and instead, learn to eat food which is good for your mind and body.”
A new strategy, called Better Health, was unveiled on July 27 by the Department of Health and Social Care.
The department said nearly two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity, so face an increased risk from Covid-19.
Alongside the mandatory calorie labels, the strategy will ban unhealthy food adverts on TV before 9pm, and end “buy one get one free” deals on unhealthy foods. But those who have lived with eating disorders claim it could set people back in their recovery.
Gemma said: “Making everything about calories, which the Better Health campaign will do, undoes all the hard work someone recovering from an eating disorder has put in, just to feel comfortable about eating.”
She was diagnosed with anorexia with bulimic tendencies when she was 17 but had a bad relationship with food for years before.
After being mocked for being overweight as a child, Gemma longed to lose weight, because she associated that with the bullying going away. Aged 16, she opted to give herself a fresh start by moving to a new school and going on a “health kick”, by dieting and exercising.
But but this quickly spiralled into an unhealthy relationship with food the summer before she started at her new school – and she went from a size 16 to an 8.
Gemma, who now lives with her partner and 11-year-old son, said: “At my new school, boys would pay me attention. I made friends really quickly and people wanted to socialise with me. Looking back, it was probably because I was a lot more confident, but I just felt that the only reason they were speaking to me was because I was thin.
“That’s what the awful disease does to you – I used to think I was never capable of anything and I’d never be successful if I wasn’t thin. My anorexia stopped me doing so many things in life because I didn’t feel I’d achieve anything if I wasn’t thin enough.”
Eating fewer than 500 calories a day, Gemma also went through a binge and “purge” cycle between the ages of 17 and 19.
She briefly recovered when she was pregnant at 20 but soon got back into her old ways once her son was born.
While studying psychology at Bradford University she sought help, and has been recovered, at a healthy size 10 dress size, for five years.
She said: “While I don’t think the calorie-labelling will affect me personally any more, I think it could be so damaging for people who are still battling eating disorders because they could fall back into the trap of avoiding certain foods.
“In recent years there has been a lot of work done globally to change how women’s bodies are seen and relax the ‘size 0’ body ideal. But if everyone starts counting calories, that will cause huge problems and reinforce a lot of damaging ideas about our bodies.
“The calorie-labelling could be a blessing for people who aren’t educated around food and need that guidance – it could be really beneficial for them.
“But for people who are already conscious of what they’re eating – and that doesn’t only refer to those with eating disorders – the impact will just be to create feelings of guilt.
“In the long-term, I think we’ll start to see an increase in people presenting with eating disorders as a result of this.”
Chloe Withyman, who became obsessed with calorie counting when she put on a small amount of weight following an operation aged 14, agrees.
Some days she would only eat salad, and went from a healthy size 12 to 14, to a UK size 4 – or zero in US sizes – in a matter of months.
She’s now recovered but said the government plans would have made life even more difficult.
The 21-year-old paediatric nursing student, from Torquay, Devon, said: “Every day is going to be an even bigger struggle. If this had been introduced when I was at my worst, I don’t think I would have survived it.
“A lot of people with eating disorders either turn to suicide or the condition of their body ends their life. It would have definitely got that bad for me.”
Chloe’s eating disorder started after she developed a brain tumour aged 14, which resulted in her pituitary gland being removed. She has no sense of when her body has had enough to eat.
She became “obsessive” and was able to work out the calorie count of meals just by looking at them, and would exist on just salads and yogurts, eating fewer than 1,000 calories a day.
Aged 16, she saw an eating disorder therapist and said: “After that, I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘actually, I’m not sure I like this any more’.”
Now a healthy and happy size 10, she said: “When I heard about the new strategy, I got extremely stressed and anxious. I do still wake up some mornings and immediately worry about calories.
“I have an app so I can scan food for calorie content if I choose to, but now the calories will be right in front of my face every day, and there will be no way to avoid them. It will make things so much worse for me, and so many others with eating disorders.”
Eating disorder campaigner Hope Virgo has started a petition against the menu change, which has received nearly than 20,000 signatures.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, you can find help from Beat Eating Disorders by clicking here or calling their helpline, which is open from noon until 8pm on weekdays and 4-8pm on weekends and bank holidays, on 0808 801 0677.