Nutrition information has its upsides, but the data are only as useful as their interpretation. Context and framework matter; without a solid foundation, food labels and menu calorie counts can do more harm than good.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that we, as humans, have basic needs that must be met before we can fulfill more advanced needs. Nutrition has a similar structure. At the base, someone has to have food – period. If food security is an issue, whether it is due to financial limitations, self-imposed restriction, or any other factors, then not much else matters. At the structure’s very top rests the hard science of nutrition as it relates to whatever medical conditions we may have; this is where we might talk about grams, calories, or various micronutrients. In between are issues of eating behavior that often go overlooked and yet are critical to address. Many people want to jump right to the top, but the danger in doing so is that without a solid middle, the structure is likely to fall apart.
Nutrition labels on packaged food can be helpful to someone with a healthy relationship with food and their body, but in the hands of an individual who does not have the solid middle that I previously discussed, the information can be misinterpreted, maybe reinforce a good/bad food dichotomy, and lead to or exacerbate issues like weight cycling and disordered eating.
In grocery stores, at least, we have a certain level of privacy and ambiguity that may mitigate the damage. Few shoppers probably recognize the yogurt in your cart as being higher in calories than its counterparts, and ultimately neither your fellow shoppers nor the cashier know whether that ice cream you are buying is for your kid’s birthday party or for yourself. Such uncertainties can help comfort people who fear judgment from the people around them.
Calorie counts on restaurant menus present a more complex problem. We place our orders in front of friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, waitstaff, and fellow patrons who are primed for judgment because they – thanks to the menu – know how many calories you have elected to order for yourself.
Certainly, not everyone judges, and some of us are coated with more Teflon than others, but for many people, even the mere fear that the person across the table may be thinking “No wonder you are so fat/skinny/slow/etc.” can be enough to cause problems. The middle layer of the nutrition hierarchy involves making food decisions based on internal cues rather than external constructs. Issues of guilt, virtue, judgment, praise, and fear cloud the picture and make the establishment of this kind of relationship with food that much more difficult to attain.
Of course, restaurant nutrition information can be helpful sometimes – for example, I remember looking at the Bertucci’s website with a patient of mine in search of menu items that would mesh with his sodium restriction – but it can be provided in ways that are cognizant of potential harm. My suggestion: Post nutrition information online, as many chain restaurants already do, and have it available on site per customer request, but leave it off the menus.
When Jonah and I went to Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant the other night, we both realized that the menu had been redesigned (Clearly, we are regulars at Bertucci’s!). In addition to new entrees and different graphics, I was dismayed to see calorie counts prominently displayed above each and every menu item. I remember when the law was passed requiring all chain restaurants to publish their calorie information on their menus, but for some reason I had forgotten about it. (I feel like the law was passed a few years ago and just now is being implemented.) In any case, it was jarring for me to see this information, and it also made me quite concerned for my patients with eating disorders (ED).
Most, if not all, of my clients with EDs have engaged in some sort of calorie counting. Whether tallying up carbs, “macros,” or points, these patients have misused the nutrition information available to them in order to help them engage in ED behaviors. Much of my work with these individuals is around helping them to move away from the counting because it is completely antithetical to intuitive eating.
As Jonah and I have discussed before, intuitive eating is the practice of using one’s internal cues rather than depending on external factors to make food decisions. That means that someone who is an intuitive eater will (most of the time) eat when they are physically hungry and eat what they are hungry for in an amount that is satisfying. It’s about trusting your body to tell you what it needs and then honoring your body’s needs by fulfilling them.
Most of my patients with ED struggle with the idea of intuitive eating because it flies in the face of what their ED is telling them – food is to be carefully monitored and planned, certain foods are bad for you and should be off-limits, you can’t trust your hunger cues, etc. Many of these patients use calorie counting as a way to gain some control, to feel like they know exactly what they are putting in their bodies. One of my patients who is doing quite well in her ED treatment says that she still can’t shake the calorie counting habit, and she notices that this behavior ramps up when she is anxious, stressed, or overly hungry. One could say that calorie counting is a coping mechanism for many people because it helps to alleviate unpleasant feelings by giving them something concrete to focus on.
In any case, I often encourage my patients to ignore nutrition labels as it can trigger their ED. And in many cases, it is possible to (mostly) avoid this information – by purchasing unpackaged foods, buying prepared food from smaller restaurants or stores, etc. However, with this legislation, many more people will be exposed to calorie information at restaurants that they have gone to for years, and it is inescapable. I know that much of the nutrition information for chain restaurants has been available online for years and that anyone could just look up the calories on the restaurant’s website, but that at least takes a bit of effort. If someone really does not want to see this information, they will avoid it, but printing it directly on the menu makes that nearly impossible (short of never visiting the particular restaurant again).
In my opinion, I think that calorie information should be made available if the customer requests it. Everyone has the right to know what they are putting into their body. But it would be great if restaurants could also provide menus without the calorie information in order to prevent triggering individuals with ED or a history of disordered eating. It could make a number of people feel safer in these establishments, and that would make a big difference in many people’s lives.