Calorie Labelling and Mental Health

I’m Sophie, founder of Sophie’s Kitchen. I bake delicious cakes for people and local businesses, but my own relationship with food is complicated. I started my battle with depression, OCD, anxiety and anorexia 6 years ago. It took me a while to realise I was ill, but I guess that’s the thing of mental health. When you’re struggling yourself, you know exactly how hard it can be, so you spend so much time making sure everyone around you doesn’t feel like the same. You lose touch with yourself.

I used to love going out with my mates for food and drinks. Slowly over time I found myself missing out on more and more social events. I didn’t understand why I didn’t want to go to anything, and none of my friends understood either. I started to teach myself to bake because I felt like I was constantly letting people down. The one thing I could still do that would make people smile was make cakes.

Unfortunately, my own health continued to spiral downwards, and I ended up being admitted into a psychiatric unit called Oaktrees in Wirral, Merseyside. I was hospitalised for 7 months in total, 4 of which I spent in a wheelchair. Over time they’d allow me a few hours off the hospital grounds. I’d rush home and bake, and I got the same reaction when I’d come into hospital and give staff my cakes. It made me so happy to see them look so happy. I decided that if I wanted to get better I needed to get better for me, not just because I was doing what the doctors told me to do.

I started to look at what would motivate me to get better, and I found a course in Liverpool Community College for baking and cake decorating. It was the first time I felt motivated in what felt like years. I printed off the college application and stuck it on my wall in my hospital room, and with the help of the hospital I got myself well enough to go to college and completed that course.

The day I weighed enough to leave hospital, I discharged myself. I haven’t seen a doctor or psychiatrist since. Different things work for different people and I’ve seen first-hand how much professional support can help other people. Personally, I took the time to make myself aware of what triggers me, what I find hard and what makes me happy. This is something I think I’ve become very, very good at. But there are still triggers and calories are one of them.

I first heard about the new calorie labelling laws in May 2021. At the time there were many petitions to try and stop this from going ahead, but they’ve all been ignored. I felt so angry and disappointed when I first found this out and I still feel that way now. I didn’t and still don’t understand what will be gained by putting calories on menus – most organisations already have nutritional values available and people can go online to find everything they need on most corporate websites. But seeing calories on a menu could have serious repercussions for someone struggling with an eating disorder.

To this day seeing calories still makes me feel anxious. I’ve spent years figuring out my triggers and working on them, but one thing I can’t shake off is the impact of seeing that number. I’ve taken steps to educate myself on what calories are and how they’re built up from fat, protein and sugars. I’m now able to look at a meal and understand where those numbers actually come from and that a high number doesn’t necessarily make it a bad choice. But no matter how far I’ve come I still find myself noting the calories on what I’m eating. I will openly admit that when I’m having a bad day, my eating disorder will creep back in, and no matter how much I’ve taught myself my brain will forget all of this and I’ll struggle with certain foods based on the calorie content.

When you’re trying to get better you begin to try and do ‘normal’ things. I was really lucky that when I started my recovery journey that I was able to do day-to-day things without calories being visible. I would slowly start to socialise and go for food and drinks again, I realised how much I had missed it. But I also know that back then if when I went out for dinner I’d have seen calories on a menu, it would have put me in a downward spiral. Calorie labelling is going to make recovery so much harder for people who are still struggling.

The thing is with food is we actually need it. It’s something you can’t dodge if you want to survive. I was very fortunate I was admitted and that the hospital were so supportive – I’ve since learned that there’s nowhere near enough support for people and many are told that they’re “not ill enough” to be admitted which results in them making themselves worse as a desperate cry for help.

But let’s be clear. I’ve lost friends over the years because they didn’t get the same help that I did. When your BMI drops to a certain level and you’re on that much medication you naturally become numb, so no matter what people say to you it just doesn’t sink in, which in turn makes it so much harder to get better. There’s a massive link between eating disorders and OCD, and routine becomes a critical part of your daily life. Any disruption to that – including a change in your eating habits – can be catastrophic. Being presented with a menu which shows calories this week, when it didn’t last week, could be a massive trigger for someone who’d just finding their feet on their own recovery journey.

Once again, this is an example of how mental health isn’t acknowledged the same way as physical health. The Government seem to think that calorie labelling will help tackle the ‘obesity crisis’ however there’s no education backing this up.

Calorie labelling will not solve the obesity crisis. Menus will highlight calories but not the nutritional content. Someone who’s aware of their calorie consumption could end up making a choice which is less nutritionally dense just because that number on the menu is lower. I could have something that’s 500 calories which is built up of mainly protein which will keep me full for hours, or something for 400 calories which consists of refined sugar and saturated fat… Which would be the better choice? We need to be educating people from a young age, helping them to understand nutrition and nourishment, what they’re eating and the impacts it has on their body. And above all, we need to be educated on balance and to truly understand that our physical and mental health are equally important.

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