On Calories, Restaurants & Healthy Eating

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I’m not a big fan of counting calories.

Calories On MenusFor one, it distracts people from listening to internal cues that tell us when we’ve had enough to eat.  I remember from my dieting days when I’d eat more, even when not hungry, because my diet plan said I needed to have a certain amount of calories each day.  Little did I know then that calorie information wasn’t accurate enough for me to really know how many I’d eaten.

Worse yet were the days when I felt like I was starving, but had already reached my calorie limit. Going over it made me feel like a failure. The consequences of that weren’t pretty.

Calories On Menus: Not Likely to Help Dieters Over The Long Haul

So when people talk about posting calorie information on restaurant menus, I have to wonder if it will really make a difference for the reason they want to do it — healthy weights. Maybe in the moment for a dieter or someone who is already very focused on what she/he eats.  For most dieters, though, it’s likely not to make a difference in the long run.

And for the average guy/girl who isn’t  that tuned into nutrition?  When folks are hungry, and really wanting that super-sized meal, will knowing the calories in it direct them to choose something else, or will it just make them eat it with a sense of guilt, knowing it’s ‘not something I should eat’?

Some Studies Suggest Consumers Ignore Food Labels

I worry that I live in a dietitian bubble and don’t always know what people really think about eating well.  So I tweeted the question “Do you think most people have a general idea of what healthy eating looks like?”  The answers I got back ranged from “I believe most people know what to do and choose not to eat healthy foods in spite of that fact” to “nope.”

Then there are the studies that suggest people don’t pay attention to nutrition information on food labels.  A recent review of 42 studies looked at the impact of health claims on food labels.  It found “that health claims may not play such an important role in influencing purchasing behavior, as price and taste do.”

Another review showed that nutrition interventions targeted to individuals are unlikely to significantly shift US dietary patterns; environmental and policy changes have more potential.  Indeed, we’ve had calorie information on food labels for years.  As a population, we’re still struggling with weight.

Spotlighting Calorie Counting Unlikely To Help

With those kinds of comments and studies in mind, and my experience working with weight-struggling women over the last 20 years, I have serious doubts that calorie information gives a big enough picture, or supports a method that is truly effective, when it comes to solving the eating and weight problems we face.

I understand the argument that people make in favor of displaying calorie counts on menus, and I’m all for an informed consumer. But putting the spotlight on calories has me concerned we’re just continuing a focus that hasn’t worked for the past 50 years.

Tell us — do you think calorie counts on restaurant menus would change the foods you order?  Or do you think you’d eat what you want and just pay attention to when you had enough, which may or may not be the whole meal, depending on where and what you eat?


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10 Responses (Add Yours)

  • [...] Travel Portal added an interesting post today on On Calories, Restaurants & Healthy EatingHere’s a small readingAnyone who’s read my writing over the years knows I’m not a big fan of counting calories.  For one, it distracts people from listening to [...]

  • Helen says:

    Thanks for a great post, Marsha.

    At an individual level, calorie counts on restaurant menus won’t change everyone’s food orders. But it is likely to change some people’s food orders. At a population level, calorie counts on restaurant menus will likely make a difference although unlikely (in of itself) to move the needle on the obesity epidemic. I consider this one of the many necessary measures to comprehensively improve the health of future generations. I remember a similar debate when nutrient information on food labels was mandated. We worried about similar issues but I think ultimately we are in a better place because we moved forward with sharing nutrient information with consumers.

  • susan says:

    Even though I don’t count calories, I still look at the nutritional information for every restaurant I’m going to (if it’s available). Yes, I have a VERY good idea of what would be healthy and what wouldn’t be — most of the time. Sometimes though, things seem perfectly healthy but have huge amounts of fat or calories in them. I always seem to underestimate the number of calories in things like sandwiches and salads. I do try to eat intuitively, but I still like to have a general idea of how much sat fat and how many calories something is. It does sometimes influence how much I eat. Food is so yummy and I’m less likely to overeat if I know that half the portion (which fills me up) is 500 calories, so eating the whole portion would be pretty unhealthy, no matter how delicious.

    I also like to see the ingredients of things because I’m trying to avoid HFCS and hydrogenated fats.

  • Marsha says:

    You make a good point, Susan — in the process of learning to eat normally again, things like calorie counts might help if we’re using them in the right way. If only more people were using them for that. Actually, more people are working their way back to normal eating so maybe they are! :) Love your blog; will add it to our Sites We Read. Thanks for your comment!

  • [...] Marsha added an interesting post today on On Calories, Restaurants & Healthy EatingHere’s a small readingShould restaurant menus feature calories? … So when people talk about posting calorie information on restaurant menus, I have to wonder if it will really make a difference for the reason they want to do it — healthy weights. … [...]

  • Zach says:

    Right on Susan.. I have to share that I’ve been a lot more label / ingredient conscious since reading thru this blog…pretty straightforward tips on heatlhy shopping / food choices etc..

    http://www.tbshealthy.blogspot.com

    Choice of foods is where it all starts.. my generation really lacks the wisdom we should have. Thanks.. Zach

  • Boydayadvon says:

    Great site this http://www.fitwoman.com and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor :)

  • Marsha says:

    Thanks for your comments, Helen. I agree nutrition information is good to have if we use it in a way that can truly help. The real problem is probably that so many of us are caught up in the diet mentality that we only use calorie information in one way, and it’s a way that generally doesn’t help those who are struggling with healthy weights. But as I’ve said before, there is hope as we see so many people today turning away from the old concepts of dieting that really didn’t help in the long run.

  • One reason I like the info on the menus is I have two kids with type 1 Diabetes who are on insulin pumps. It helps to know how many carbs to put into the pumps to bolus insulin. But I know that’s a rarity among the people going to restaurants! Otherwise, I think it hinders people and promotes the idea of bad versus good foods, rather than neutral and eating with balance and moderation.

  • Marsha says:

    That’s a really great point, Susan. I guess what’s needed is that society in general looks at nutrition info w/o the diet mentality. Then the info can be really useful.

    Thanks for your comment.

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