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Calls for calorie-free menus to protect mental health

Image of McDonalds meal
Brett Jordan | Unsplash

News round-up by Conor D'Andrade

Four months after the government introduced a policy that stipulates food outlets with over 250 staff must show calories on menus, mental health experts are already calling for action to help people recovering from or currently experiencing an eating disorder.

The introduction of calories to menus intended to promote healthy eating habits by allowing individuals to track the number of calories they were consuming for any given meal.

But the policy has been criticised for its effectiveness, and its potentially negative impact on those with, or recovering from, an eating disorder.

Forward Thinking Birmingham (FTB), a specialist eating disorder service, has launched the ‘Eating Out Without The Calorie Count’ campaign.

“For people who are affected by and recovering from eating disorders, the presence of calorie labelling on menus is potentially unhelpful and possibly damaging to their wellbeing and recovery," said consultant clinical psychologist, Dr Sheryllin McNeil.

This was echoed by Kirsty Stapeldon, one of FTB’s Children’s Hospital Charity funded Peer Supporters, who said:

“When I heard the news about the new legislation, it sparked something in me. While I consider myself recovered from my eating disorder, it made me worry about my mental health and if it would influence how I act at a restaurant.

“When someone with an eating disorder is in recovery, we’re trying to learn that food is more than numbers; it’s about nutrition and the benefits to your body.

"Having that calorie-free menu option would support and help our service users who are recovering.”

Jessica Sharman, a peer support worker, shared a similar sentiment:

“Seeing calories displayed on menus can be a huge challenge for people with experience of eating disorders. To me, it feels like a reminder of all the times I obsessed over calorie-counting and could not sit and enjoy a meal without guilt and shame afterwards.

“I am now better able to deal with these triggers, but I know for many it is a great barrier to their recovery. It takes away from what going out for a meal should be, enjoying ourselves and spending time with loved ones.”

New funding for 'social prescription' mental health treatments

£12.7m in funding is being allocated across 11 local councils to trial GPs prescribing activities to improve mental health.

The funding is going towards pilot projects that include free bike loans, walking groups and adult cycle training.

The projects will allow GPs to provide ‘social prescriptions’ for patients that may benefit from physical and social activities, but typically would not engage with these sorts of activities due to different barriers to entry.

"Getting active is hugely beneficial for both our mental and physical health – helping reduce stress and ward off other illness such as heart disease and obesity<" said Maria Caulifield, Minister for Health.

"The UK is leading the way in embedding social prescribing in our NHS and communities across the country. We’ve already exceeded our target to ensure over 900,000 people are referred to social prescribing schemes by 2023-24 and this pilot will help us identify further schemes to reduce disparities and boost mental and physical wellbeing across the country."

Historically, the government has slashed funding for public entities that would have typically made the kind of physical and social interactions provided by these pilot schemes accessible in the first place, including the closure of 500 community centres between 2010 and 2018.

Charities call on Prime Minister for better cost of living support

Seventeen mental health charities have signed an open letter to the current Prime Minister and his potential replacements to "stop being silent" on the worsening financial crisis and the catastrophic fallout it will cause.

The letter reads as follows:

A letter to the current and future Prime Minister,

There has been significant attention this month on the current cost of living crisis and the likelihood of a recession, which could last for years. But so far, there has been no recognition of the risk this poses to the nation’s mental health.

We are already beginning to see the impact. In July alone Samaritans received 12,000 emotional support contacts mentioning finance or unemployment concerns and Mind’s Infoline has seen a 30% rise compared to last year in calls related to finances. YoungMinds also tracks young people's experiences of mental health and, for the first time, 'worries about money' was found to be the top concern and negative influence on their mental health.

We know from previous experience that a squeeze on living standards, unmanageable debt and economic recessions cause a rise in mental health problems, demand for services and, sadly, are connected to a rise in suicides. We have the opportunity to learn from the past and address how to support people’s wellbeing to avoid repeating history.

The nation’s mental health services were already stretched, and the pandemic has pushed them to breaking point. With over 1.5 million people currently on a waiting list, the cost of living crisis could put our entire mental health system on the brink of collapse, leaving people that are already struggling without the support they need.

Interventions must be put in place now, both for the immediate and the long-term future. Recommitting to implementing a cross-Government mental health plan and national suicide prevention strategy that demonstrates how to tackle inequalities and support marginalised communities will show us how seriously Government is taking this. Adequately supporting those on the lowest incomes, who are most at risk of experiencing mental health problems and are at higher suicide risk, is imperative right now.

This is a societal issue which will only be addressed if the Government, private and voluntary sectors work closely together. The voluntary sector is ready to respond but we cannot do it alone. We need the Government to stop being silent and show us clear and decisive leadership on this emerging national emergency that affects us all.

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