How ‘The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories’ Could Feed into Eating Disorders

Illustration by Evey Joan

As I sit down to write this, there is one important thing to note: I am eating a cookie. A gooey, rich, dark chocolate and almond butter cookie to be precise, which I baked yesterday using an incredibly popular recipe from the cafe chain Pret a Manger. Licking my plate clean in a satisfied but particularly undignified manner, it dawns on me just how different my relationship with food is today than it was this time two years ago. Two years ago, I would never have chosen to bake something so unapologetically sugar-packed and decadent, as I couldn’t bear the thought of calorific treats staring me down in the kitchen, daring me to take a spontaneous guilt-ridden bite. If I were to let myself eat something that I deemed as ‘unhealthy’ as a chocolate cookie, I would plan the rest of my day’s food intake around it, getting myself into such a state of panic before and after eating my ‘designated treat’ that I barely got the chance to experience any real enjoyment. Right now, I feel almost elated that I was able to savour every single bite of my delicious confection, put down my incredibly clean plate and simply give it no further thought.

Disordered eating habits and restrictive mindsets surrounding food are incredibly difficult to break away from - I’ve only managed it in the last year or so, and I still find myself being challenged in certain situations. Knowing first hand how tough it is to improve a negative relationship with food, I was horrified when I saw the BBC advertising a new programme titled The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories. I didn’t watch it myself, out of fear that it could trigger a resurfacing of the negative feelings I’ve worked so hard to combat, but from reading up on it I know the basic premise of the show was this: diners visited a restaurant and ordered from a menu, whilst in a hidden gym people were exercising to ‘burn off’ the calories in the dishes chosen by the diners. Afterwards, the diners were informed of how much exercise was required to burn off the exact number of calories in their meals, in the hopes that this would encourage them to think more carefully about their food choices in the future. Whoever was on the team that created and promoted this programme has clearly never had a negative relationship with food or exercise, whilst it was understandably triggering for those who have, myself included.

 Thankfully, I am now at the point where I was able to see the huge amount of online conversation about this programme without being tempted to watch it, but if this had aired two years ago it would be another story. Whilst I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder and didn’t receive medical treatment, I can now look back and acknowledge how unhealthy my mindset really was. What began as a casual desire to ‘be healthier and lose a bit of weight’ quickly became an unrelenting commitment to become as thin as I could, and soon I lost interest in anything that didn’t relate to food or exercise. I loved the feeling of control that came with visibly seeing the changes that were happening to my body and knowing they were entirely my own doing. Where many people are able to lose weight whilst maintaining a perfectly healthy mindset, my harsh internal critic and perfectionist tendencies meant I became obsessed with achieving the supposedly ‘perfect’ body, an intangible concept cultivated from years of tabloid and social media exposure. 

 As is the case for many of those who struggle with an eating disorder, one word was at the front of my mind for a good 85% of my waking hours: calories. This simple word acted as a vicious internal alarm, sounding almost constantly throughout my day. The alarm blared if my kitchen scales indicated that I’d accidentally spooned a couple of grams more than my ‘allotted’ portion of peanut butter over my porridge, jeopardising my meticulously planned breakfast. The alarm blared if I was asked to go on an impromptu night out, as my brain quickly calculated how many vodka-sodas I would be allowed to drink to still fit in with my daily calorie allowance, often compensating with a less-than-filling dinner. The alarm blared if a friend offered me the remainder of their uneaten chips, as my food obsession (which led to a passionate disdain for the wasting of food) battled with my eating disorder for control, usually resulting in me hastily eating the offending chips before I could have a chance to feel guilty. Calories were like a currency, with my Instagram Explore page acting like a stern financial advisor, encouraging me to cut down my daily expenditure through so-called ‘swaps’ and ‘hacks’. If you’ve never been exposed to the obsessive world of calorie counting on Instagram, I’ll save you the trouble of searching: they usually tell you to swap out any carb for a vegetable, convinced you won’t be able to tell the difference between a normal pizza and some tomato puree and cheese on top of a bell pepper.

Exercise inevitably played a huge part in my eating disorder. Whilst I genuinely enjoyed going to the gym, and usually opted for resistance training rather than punishing myself with endless cardio, calories still played a huge part in my exercise regime. I luckily never got myself a FitBit, but I would try to calculate the calories I’d burned through a combination of the numbers I saw on cardio machines, as well as the MyFitnessPal estimates for every kind of exercise I did. This then affected my daily food intake, turning food into a coveted prize to be won through hard work at the gym, rather than what it really is: fuel for our bodies and minds. As I now think back to this challenging period of my life, where practically every moment was consumed by thoughts of how many calories I was taking in or burning, I’m horrified to think that The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories could promote the start of similar obsessions for people who have previously never struggled with disordered eating. 

Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, have already reported a 35% rise in demands for their services since the Coronavirus pandemic began, and after the programme was aired they reported receiving three times the number of calls they usually do, even having to keep their phone service open for an extra three hours to meet demand. Whilst the messages promoted in the BBC2 programme are understandably harmful to those who are currently suffering - or have previously suffered - with eating disorders, telling the general population exactly how long they supposedly need to exercise in order to burn off a meal could lead to more and more people becoming unshakably aware of the number of calories in their favourite dishes. Whilst it is of course important to promote a healthy lifestyle that incorporates a somewhat balanced diet and a level of exercise, reducing food to a numbers game can be incredibly damaging, as these numbers then become impossible to look past. I read the impeccable Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton last year, and one passage particularly resonated with me:

‘You can restore your physical being to health; you can develop a rational, balanced, caring attitude to weight as well as good daily habits. But you can’t forget how many calories are in a boiled egg or how many steps burn how many calories.’

I found these words so powerful because they’re so true- once you develop a calorie-counting mindset in relation to food and exercise, it’s difficult to see anything else. The science-based approach to food choices promoted by The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories could risk people forgetting that dining out is supposed to be joyful. Certain experiences shouldn’t be reduced to mathematical equations: mock-pondering over your order at a restaurant, when in reality you made up your mind earlier whilst browsing the PDF menu online; dunking a soft piece of warm bread into olive oil and balsamic vinegar as you eagerly await your starter with a soft grumble in your belly; noticing your jeans becoming that little bit tighter at the end of your meal, comfortable in the feeling of being fully satiated. A spokesperson for the BBC responded to the online backlash over the programme by saying that it was intended “to give viewers information about the latest research into the science of calories, about why our bodies need them and how our bodies use them.” This is a perfectly reasonable claim, as technically our bodies are a science, but what the ‘science of calories’ fails to consider is human nature, and just how fragile our relationships are with our own bodies. Food and health play big parts in our everyday lives, and to reduce these complex aspects down to carefully calculated figures is a dangerous risk I sincerely wish the BBC hadn’t taken.

Written by Olivia Cox