Last year, the FDA started requiring certain restaurants to post calorie counts over menu counters to “educate” consumers about their eating. While I certainly believe that education is important in empowering consumers to make choices that honor their health, I’m not convinced that calorie counts should be considered “helpful information.” Here’s why:
1. Calorie Counts Are Misleading
A calorie is a unit of energy, just like a pound is a unit of weight, a degree is a unit of temperature, and a lux is a unit of light (or illuminance.) By definition, a calorie represents the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. This probably isn’t how we think about calories in our diet-obsessed culture. The following picture is probably more representative of our calorie-mindset:
In terms of the way we measure food energy, talking about calories isn’t so simple. First of all, our “calorie counts” from food are calculated by literally setting the food on fire and measuring how much heat is produced. Alternatively, food scientists sometimes use various chemical methods to break down a food into the individual components of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and then use calculations based off these values to determine calorie counts. Regardless of the method for calculating calories in a lab, the way a human body converts food into energy is very different. Our metabolisms don’t set food on fire, or complete mathematic equations. In fact, much of what we eat actually passes through our bodies undigested, meaning that even if we eat “100 calories” of broccoli, our bodies are receiving much less than 100 calories of energy.
2. Calorie Counts Aren’t a Measure of Hunger
When I sit down to eat, I generally don’t know how many “calories” I’m going to need in order to satisfy my hunger. Whether I’m eating low-calorie foods like vegetables or high-calorie foods like peanut butter, the amount of those various foods I’m going to need to eat in order to energize my body is going to look different. Likewise, if I’m eating a burger, I probably will require a different volume of food to be satisfied than if I was eating salads. But regardless of the energy density (i.e. calorie count) of the individual foods I’m choosing, I probably will consume close to the same average number of calories over time. If I’m hungry, I’m going to eat. If I’m hungrier I’m going to eat more.
3. Knowing Calorie Counts Can Lead to Overeating
The idea behind posting calorie counts is that a consumer will see the various measures and then choose a lower-calorie meal. However, if a person is eating based off of his or her body signals, he or she will stop eating when they are satisfied regardless of the calorie density and regardless of whether or not they finish their food. On the other hand, a person may see that their menu choice has fewer calories than other menu choices, feel good about this fact, and then consequently feel entitled to finish the entire portion regardless of hunger levels. Alternatively, a person might see that their menu choice is very high in calories, feel guilty about this fact, and then feel compelled to finish the whole portion because they intend to start a diet the next day. Or, they might feel full halfway, but because they already feel they’ve done something bad by choosing the high-calorie food, will finish they whole portion because they think, “I’ve already blown it, so I’d might as well make the most of this experience.”
The idea that calorie counts are enough to facilitate balanced eating habits is misinformed and ignorant, and waters down human behavior to a simple, either-or equation. Of course, we are so much more complex than this, and calorie count knowledge is not enough to help us make choices that honor our bodies. In fact, I feel that it’s a harmful fear-mongering, Shane-motivated tactic to post calorie counts all over the place.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about sugar addiction, mentioning that beliefs about sugar aren’t as important as what we do with those beliefs. The same is true with calorie counts. Whether a person feels that calorie information is valuable or not, my concern is how that knowledge influences their eating habits. If it triggers overeating, begets guilt and shame, or perpetuates scientifically incorrect information, it’s harmful! If it helps a person to recognize that finishing a portion of food out of habit is not honoring to their health, it’s probably helpful. However, I personally have found that most people fall into the former category.
Overall, I’ve found that posting calorie counts creates more harm than help, begetting unnecessary shame and fear. If you can relate to this experience of fear, I feel for you. The struggle with food is scary and isolating, and I’ve been there, too. But there’s hope — you don’t need to struggle alone. I encourage you to make an appointment with an intuitive-eating informed health practitioner you trust. And, as always, please feel free to send me an email to chat!