Why calories on menus is bad news for midlife women like me

There I was, settling down to a night in the ’Spoons with friends, G & Slimline T on the table and menu in hand to order nachos. Dirty nachos that I’d been looking forward to all day.

And then I saw how dirty these particular nachos were: 671 calories dirty – and that was for the small version. I mean, I knew they were bad, but seeing the figure in laminate and white…

My eyes scanned the menu, looking for something treaty but not so calorific. I looked again. And again, eventually weighing up the merits of a chicken breast burger at 437 calories or a classic 6oz burger at 449. Chips (597 calories) were out of the question.

When we’re out, friends joke that I’m indecisive and always wait to hear what they’re having before I choose. In truth, my head is doing mental arithmetic, roughly working out what is the least calorific thing on the menu I’ll enjoy (if this had been on my Maths O’level paper I wouldn’t have failed it five times).

Now that I’m at a healthy weight (although at the top end of my BMI – thanks HRT tablets), I’m not so chicken or fish-fixated when I eat out. But before that, this was all I would allow myself to look at.

This has been my life for as long as I’ve been going out to eat. I wish I could say it’s what WeightWatchers/Slimming World/MyFitnessPal has done to me, but it’s not.

It’s what being a woman has done to me. All those years of society telling me I am what I look like and what I look like has to be slim and beautiful and young.

Which is why I am so against government plans to list calories on to all restaurant, café and takeaway menus.

Because that night, after I’d chosen the chicken breast burger, I went home feeling deprived and hungry and devoured two slices of toast with peanut butter. And a glass of wine while I waited for the toast to pop. And then topped up the wine to have while I ate.

I consumed more calories eating and drinking after the pub to assuage my hunger and disappointment than if I’d just had the nachos.

Mental health charities have, rightly, come out against the move to list calories on menus, saying it could lead to eating disorders among younger people.

 But I don’t think it’s just younger people we should be concerned about.

A study last year found that 3.6% of women in their 40s and 50s have had an eating disorder in the last 12 months, while 15 per cent have suffered some form during their lifetime.

To put that in perspective, around 1% of women aged 15-30 were diagnosed with an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binging. (Of course, there will be those who haven’t been diagnosed and are suffering in silence.)

Of those older women with a disorder, 7.6% suffered what is known as “other specified feeding and eating disorder” (Osfed). That means, says Mind, “you have an eating disorder but you don't meet all the criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder”. That figure was higher than the figure for anorexia, the most commonly thought-about eating disorder.

The NHS lists eating disorder symptoms as:

  • spending a lot of time worrying about your weight and body shape

  • avoiding socialising when you think food will be involved

  • eating very little food

  • deliberately making yourself sick or taking laxatives after you eat

  • exercising too much

  • having very strict habits or routines around food

  • changes in your mood

No wonder more than 7% of us fall into the Osfed category. We are constantly bombarded with negative messages about our weight, body shape and food – especially at this time of year, when the newspapers are filled with features (always in the female lifestyle section) offering helpful “tips” on how to avoid “bad” party food. Come January, of course, these articles will be replaced with ones on how to lose weight.

Added to that, there are the year-round features extolling older celebrities for looking “stunning” in their bikinis or swimsuits and telling us “how you, too, can look like this”. They neglect to mention that looking good is part of these women’s jobs and while we clock on at the office, they’re clocking on for several hours at the gym. With a personal trainer.

Many of the women in last year’s study said this was the first time they’d spoken out, but with eating disorder specialists and news reports focussing so much on how they affect young people, that’s not really a surprise. The stereotype of an anorexic is a young, vulnerable girl unable to cope with the life changes puberty and growing up brings on.

But if you think about it, women our age also have an incredible number of life changes – children leaving home, grandchildren arriving, the menopause. Then there’s divorce, career pressures, parents growing old, friends dying, illnesses…

And a lifetime of being told that if your body doesn’t match up to a 21-year-old Victoria’s Secret Angel then you’re a failure.

Body positivity is something we should all aim for but sadly, older women are left out of the discussion. Our bodies are amazing pieces of engineering and deserve love – no matter how big, small, wrinkly, stretchmarked, saggy or old.

It is when we learn how wonderful our bodies are that we learn to treat them right. If we do that 80% of the time, then there’s nothing wrong in going out to Wetherspoons and having all the calories.

Which is why the government should be investing in education and body positivity for all age groups and leave us to decide if we want the nachos.

If you’re worried or have an eating disorder, visit Beat for help or call them on 0800 801 0677. You can also find your local eating disorder clinic here.  

Should menus come with calories? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and if you’ve enjoyed this or find it interesting, please like and subscribe below and tell your friends about 50Sense.