Anyone 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 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.
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’?
I worry that I live in a dietitian bubble and don’t always know what people really think about eating well. So I twittered 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.
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?