Calorie Counting on Menus: Are we headed in the right direction?


FDA: Some Restaurants Must List Calories On Menus

restaurant menu calorie counts chartLast Tuesday I began my morning with my typical commute to work…heading down the road with the heat on, coffee mug in hand, listening to NPR Morning Edition when Allison Aubrey informed me that today The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will release new rules that will require restaurants with 20 or more locations to begin posting calorie information on their menus.

My reaction…alas! Another attempt to divert our attention away from the more relevant issue.

Focusing On Calories Isn’t The Answer

Hey guys, remember the decade we all spent going fat free only to recognize that the refined sugar that replaced that naturally occurring fat may have had a greater detriment on our health?  It seems time and time again we struggle to recognize that isolating and demonizing one component of food (fat grams, carbohydrate content, and now total number of calories per serving) isn’t the answer.

Once I arrived at work I had a quick conversation with someone over coffee.  I began to voice my dismay over the recent FDA regulations when she swiftly expressed her enthusiasm.  She, like the National Restaurant Association, saw it as a good thing.

In fact, the National Restaurant Association issued a statement saying that it strongly believes in the importance of providing nutrition information to us consumers.  Here’s how they put it: consumers will now “have a new tool to help them make choices that are right for them.”

A new tool?  Really!?

Calorie Counting On Menus May Mislead

I’ve worked with women who have mastered the art of calorie counting.  And they’ve done it for decades.  Women who create Excel files to track them, those that can count to 1,200 every single day all in their heads and still have mental energy to help their kids with math homework at night.

Nowadays there are apps on our phones, hundreds to choose from, that help us track our daily calorie consumption.  We have calorie counting simplified by tracking points all based on the same type of formula using the same unit of measure, the calorie.  Sorry, but this isn’t what I would consider a “new tool”.

“Don’t bother counting calories: It’s the type of food that matters”

Once I got to my desk I was delighted to find an email from a colleague that provided a link to a recent study with the headline “Don’t bother counting calories: It’s the type of food that matters”.  Thank you Marsha!

I immediately hit the link in hopes that it would shift me out of the negativity I was experiencing after hearing this morning’s news headline.  And it worked.  A doctor by the name of Sean Lucan is doing some fantastic work at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and he says that focusing on calories alone may “mislead and harm public health”.

He recently published a wonderful commentary in the journal Public Health Nutrition that defends his position quite nicely.  Here it is for those interested How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases may mislead and harm public health.

The Alternative To Calorie Counting

So what’s the alternative to calorie counting?

It’s time that we rise above determining the health of our food according to what it doesn’t contain or what it has less of (calories for instance). Wouldn’t it be worth our while to shift gears and begin selecting our food according to what it DOES contain and not what it DOESN’T?

Here’s the thing: We’ve got an entire year to prove it to the FDA that we don’t want just another tool.  These new rules won’t take effect until a year from now and in the meantime it is likely that the FDA will face legal and political challenges from the food industry (and maybe even from us, the consumers!!).

So how’s this for a shift to the paradigm, as you go through your day after Thanksgiving, when you plan your holiday buffet tables, when you stop at restaurants to grab a bite, and when you do your shopping for your meals at home…select your food based on the overall nutritional worth.

Think WHOLE For Healthy Eating

Don’t just isolate one component of your food that forces you to think quantitatively about it rather than qualitatively, or in other words, think WHOLE about it.  Whole in a nutritional sense, yes, but also whole in the sense of the other roles food plays in your life. You know what foods support your health and happiness without having another tool.  So use your intuitive wisdom.

This is my wish for the New Year — that we as a nation can increase the quality of the food we eat by focusing on the worth of our food.  And I’m not sure that the FDA, the food industry or public health campaigns are going to make that happen for us.  It’s each consumer, each individual, each of us, choosing to change the tools we use in order to change direction of how we eat our food.

Have you tried to count calories? Share your experience.

2 responses to “Calorie Counting on Menus: Are we headed in the right direction?”

  1. AmberLynn Pappas says:

    I was really happy to find this in my blog roll this morning. I was just thinking about how I’d much rather restaurants list the ingredients used in their food (not just a general list, but a detailed one) instead of their calories. I have a friend who owns a restaurant that lists where the food comes from in the menu. It makes me comfortable eating there because I know what the food is and where it came from.

  2. Deb says:

    I agree that it is not the mere counting of calories that counts. But I am also happy with the new rule that requires calorie info on menus. This has already been the rule in California for some time now. I am happy wiith the rule not because I count calories, but because it provides a quantitative method by wich to compare choices. Therefore I support it. 🙂

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About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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