Concerns have been expressed about the government’s plans to put calories on menus. One mother struggling with anorexia and bulimia said she could “undo all the hard work that someone recovering from an eating disorder did”.
Public relations 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 only eighth and ate a single slice of dry toast for breakfast and lunch – stones hidden in her pockets as she stepped on the scales to mask her weight loss.
The 32-year-old from Bradford, West Yorkshire said, “One of the things you will learn as you recover is to avoid calorie counting so you can develop better relationships with food.
“You are trained by a nutritionist, so you can ignore the calorie count and learn to eat foods that are good for your mind and body instead.”
A new strategy called Better Health was unveiled on July 27th by the Department of Health and Social Affairs.
The department said nearly two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or live with obesity, putting them at increased risk of Covid-19.
In addition to mandatory calorie labels, the strategy bans advertising of unhealthy foods on TV before 9:00 pm and ends “Buy One Get One Free” deals on unhealthy foods. But those who have lived with eating disorders claim this could take people back to their recovery.
Gemma said, “If you do everything about calories, which the Better Health campaign will do, the hard work that someone recovering from an eating disorder will do is just to be comfortable eating.”
When she was 17, she was diagnosed with anorexia with bulimic tendencies, but had a poor relationship with food for years.
After being ridiculed as a child for being overweight, Gemma longed to lose weight because she associated it with the end of bullying. At 16, she decided to start over by moving to a new school and getting a “health kick” by dieting and exercising.
But that quickly led to an unhealthy relationship with food the summer before she started at her new school – and she switched from a height of 16 to an 8.
Gemma, who now lives with her partner and her 11 year old son, said, “In my new school, boys would pay me attention. I made friends very quickly and people wanted to get in touch with me. In retrospect, it was probably because I was a lot more confident, but I just felt that the only reason they spoke to me was because I was thin.
“That’s what the terrible disease does to you. I used to think I was incapable of anything and I would never be successful if I wasn’t thin. My anorexia has kept me from doing so many things in life because I didn’t feel like I could achieve anything if I wasn’t thin enough. “
Gemma ate less than 500 calories a day and went through a binge-and-purge cycle between the ages of 17 and 19.
She made a brief recovery when she was pregnant at 20, but soon returned to her old habits as soon as her son was born.
She sought help while studying psychology at Bradford University and recovered for five years from a healthy dress size of 10.
She said, “While I don’t think calorie labeling affects me personally any more, it could be so harmful to people who are still struggling with eating disorders because they could get trapped in avoiding certain foods.”
“Much work has been done around the world in recent years to change the way we view women’s bodies and to loosen the body ideal of size 0. However, if everyone starts counting calories, it will create big problems and heighten many harmful ideas about our bodies.
“Calorie labeling could be a boon for people who are unfamiliar with food and need this guide – it could really benefit them.
“But for people who are already aware of what they are eating – and this doesn’t just apply to people with eating disorders – the effect will only be to make them feel guilty.”
“In the long run, I think we will see an increase in people with eating disorders as a result.”
Chloe Withyman, who became obsessed with counting calories when she gained a small amount of weight after surgery at age 14, agrees.
Some days she just ate lettuce and went from a healthy size of 12 to 14 to a British size of 4 – or zero in US sizes – in a matter of months.
She has now recovered, but said the government plans made life even more difficult.
The 21-year-old pediatric nursing student from Torquay, Devon said, “Every day is going to be an even bigger battle. If this had been introduced when I was at my worst, I would not have survived.” it.
“Many people with eating disorders either turn to suicide or the condition of their body ends their life. It would definitely have been that bad for me. “
Chloe’s eating disorder started after she developed a brain tumor at the age of 14 that resulted in her pituitary gland being removed. She has no idea when her body has enough to eat.
She became “obsessive” and was able to tell the calorie count of meals just by looking at them. She consisted only of salads and yogurt and ate less than 1,000 calories a day.
When she was 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 still like it. “
Now a healthy and happy size 10, she said, “When I heard about the new strategy, I got extremely stressed and anxious. I still wake up in the morning immediately worrying about calories.
“I have an app that lets me browse foods by calorie content if I want, but now the calories are right in front of my face every day and there is no way I can avoid them. It’s going to make things so much worse for me and so many others with eating disorders. “
The eating disorders activist Hope Virgo has started a petition against the menu changewhich has received almost 20,000 signatures.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, you can find help at Beat Eating Disorders at click here or call the hotline on 0808 801 0677, which is open on weekdays from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on weekends and public holidays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.