It’s a bog-standard Tuesday lunchtime and I’m with a friend. We’re desperate for some lunch. Beige food in particular. After umm-ing and ahh-ing about where to go, we settle on Pizza Express. It’s a classic. It’s affordable, there’s plenty of options (including vegan and gluten-free), there’s always a good vibe and I have never yet come away still hungry. It’s a much-loved chain restaurant that has been one of my absolute OGs since my teens.
It was there for me with wedges of cheesecake for my Saturday night dates with my first boyfriend, it remained loyal through my early twenties with its ever-delectable Orange Wednesdays deal, and has seen me through everything from NCT lunches, first dates with potential men, dinners with pals I’ve not seen in years, lockdown’s Eat Out To Help Out and more. I’ve tried the dough balls and pizzas, the salads and pastas, the puddings and the wine. It is all beautiful. But on this bog standard Tuesday lunchtime there is a huge spanner thrown into the works, and that comes in the form of a menu update.
Because earlier this month a new rule came into place which means that any restaurant chain which hires more than 250 people must display the calorie content in every item they sell on the menu. It’s part of a government initiative to help lower the rates of obesity within the UK.
So, as I sat down ready to peruse my main options and a work out which free side to get (courtesy of the Pizza Express app, which I highly recommend btw), my mind was thrown into unexpected turmoil by the declaration of calories splashed across my menu.
I know the calories – loosely – in most foods. I know which fruits and vegetables contain the most and the least. I know which foods are freakishly high and which foods are surprisingly low, and I know what to order from any takeaway menu to consume the least amount of calories. But this isn’t because of a healthy education on foods and nutrition, this is because I have struggled with disordered eating for the majority of my life.
I went on my first diet aged 11, and my last diet aged 28. I suffered from bulimia, I had days where I survived on 600 calories. I tried MyFitnessPal, Slimming World and – my personal favourite – only eating foods that started with a certain letter of the alphabet (god bless my 15-year-old self and her creativity). None of them made me happier, and for sure none of them made me healthier.
Counting calories was for me, and has been for many women, a way to maintain control when so much else was in life spiraling out of control. And so to see it promoted in the mainstream as a GOOD thing is hard, because for anyone who has suffered with even the tiniest of doubts about how their weight and appearance affects their self-worth, it is triggering AF.
I saw the calories on that menu and instantly my mind started spiraling and I felt like a desperate and terrified teenager all over again. It took me back to a place that I’ve spent what feels like a lifetime trying to move away from. I’ve worked hard to undo the work that the world and society forced upon our generation at such a young age, and have tried to rewrite this narrative that women are only attractive so long as they’re slim and beautiful, and that they shouldn’t enjoy food – or at the very least are only allowed to enjoy food so long as they’re slim. And this new initiative feels like it attempts to throw that work out the window, to make us feel guilt where there should be none.
Do I think it’ll help bring down obesity levels? I’m doubtful. For me it’s about creating better access and a better mindset towards exercise and cooking and about leaning into intuitive eating. If I’m going out for a big slap-up oversized burger and fries and macaroni cheese, I know I’m going to likely go over my recommended calorie intake for the day, and that’s OK, so long as it’s not every day. I don’t need to be bombarded with the information by tiny fonts trying to dance in front of my eyes.
The upside to all of this? The ability to continue to champion smaller chains and independent restaurants who, for the time being, can escape the control of the calorie king. And so I shall seek out the solace of the un-graffitied menu for my midweek meals with gal pals, and decadent date nights, because I prioritise my mental health and my self-worth above calorie-counting.
Soz Boris, but this ain’t it.