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Calorie Counts on Menus: Good or Bad Psychology?

What effect do those counts have on us?

My husband and I were having dinner with friends from out of state the other night. They had taken an elderly relative to a restaurant where calorie counts were listed next to every item on the menu. “Is it true that this is the law now in NY?” they demanded. “It’s completely crazy! Made us not want to eat anything!”

Regulations requiring chain restaurants to post calories on their menus are national, although some states have stricter requirements than others. But are they actually helpful? Or is there a possibility that they could do some serious damage to individuals already struggling with eating issues? Might there be a better way to manage the unhealthy eating that is traditionally served up and practiced in many of these restaurants?

Recent research suggests that the answers to these questions are “yes,” “yes” and “yes.”

In one study reported in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the Health Behavior News Service, customers in some fast food restaurants and coffee shops were cutting back on calories, often in the form of “add-ons” like sour cream on tacos and additions to coffee drinks. However, in sandwich and burger restaurants, there seemed to be little impact. Not surprisingly, women were more conscious of the calorie counts than men.

According to the report in Health Behavior News, “130 million people dine out daily in the U. S. and it’s estimated that the average U.S. adult eats 4.8 meals per week in restaurants.” Further, “nearly half of all food dollars are used to buy meals outside the home with a third of total calories consumed each day coming from out-of-home food.”Thus it would seem that changing eating habits outside of the home would be crucial to changing weight and eating issues. Yet is calorie counting on menus the best solution?

The dinner conversation with our friends reflected the findings in the research. The women noted that the calorie count made them more conscious of what they would eat. The men said they would ignore it. Someone said that it would take all of the pleasure out of eating; and someone else said that they would feel so resentful and rebellious that they would probably over-eat just to prove something , even if they didn’t know who they were trying to prove it to.

Several of my clients who struggle with eating issues say that having the calorie count doesn’t do a thing for them – except, in some cases, to make them feel more ashamed of what they eat. This might seem like a good incentive for someone who is struggling to control his intake, but shame seldom works as a deterrent. If it did, most people who binge eat would have stopped long ago.

Furthermore, for those people who struggle with anorexia or restrictive eating, shame simply reinforces the idea that they are doing a good thing by not eating – even though they actually need to consume more calories.

According to a research group based at Texas Christian University, most studies do not show any evidence that that calorie counts listed on menus significantly changes calories ordered or consumed. They are among a growing group of nutritionists and scientists suggesting that instead of calories, menus display the minutes of exercise needed to burn off the calories in any item listed. Will this work any better? It’s difficult to say.

My own experience, after working in the field of eating disorders for more than thirty years, is that calorie count, whether it’s what we eat or what we burn off, is not the issue. Certainly, most people still do not really understand what healthy eating is all about, and education is paramount. But it will not change cultural and family traditions of binging on huge amounts of unhealthy food as part of any celebration. Nor can it impact the underlying psychological issues that drive much overeating.

Many, many people find comfort and soothing in large quantities of high fat, high calorie food. Others derive a sense of self-worth in their ability to restrict their food intake – even to the point of starving to death. Posting either calories or exercise on menus will not change any of that.

So what can we do? I think it’s time to recognize that to focus on calories, either consumed or burned, is not enough to change our eating behavior. It is important to change our national unhealthy eating behavior. Education, starting with very young children, is crucial. What that education is, however, is still unclear. I would suggest that it has nothing to do with calorie count, but learning more about healthy portions would probably help a lot. It is part of our culture to think of more as better – educating ourselves and our children to taste and appreciate each bite of a more limited amount could be a useful approach.

It would also be helpful to let go of thinness as the holy grail of health. As a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association tells us, healthy bodies come in all sizes – as do unhealthy ones. Oz Garcia, writing for the Huffington Post, says it: “Being thin does not equate to good health.” As an example, he notes a study reported on that some lean people have a higher risk than their overweight friends of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

This of course does not mean we should start eating more fatty foods and stop exercising. But it does mean that we need an overhaul of our national and personal attitudes towards health and beauty. Susie Orbach’s classic book Fat is a Feminist Issue is, paradoxically, no longer just about women. It’s about our attitudes and our psychology. It’s about what we understand about health and general well-being. It’s about marketing and choice. In a fascinating article in the New York Times Michael Moss tells us that junk food companies have learned that people may talk about healthy eating (which changes, by the way, from concern with fat to concern with sugar to concern with hormones to concern with something else), but that what we buy is what tastes good to us. And that generally includes sweet, salty and fatty foods.

As I have studied and written about the psychodynamics of eating behaviors, I have become convinced that the way we eat is directly tied to how we soothe ourselves. Eating behaviors can feed on themselves, so to speak, and can become habitual and even addictive soothing techniques. So maybe it’s time for us to look not at what the restaurants, news, politicians and big businesses are telling us about the foods we eat, but to consider our own needs. And what is really best for us.

Read more:…

Krieger, J.W., et al. (2013). Menu Labeling Regulations and Calories Purchased at Chain Restaurants, American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Menu labels displaying amount of exercise needed to burn calories show benefits. Texas Christian University (TCU)

F. Diane Barth (2003) “Separate but Not Alone: Separation-Individuation Issues in College Students with Eating Disorders Clinical Social Work Journal

F. Diane Barth (2008) “Hidden Eating Disorders: Attachment and Affect Regulation” Clinical Social Work Journal vol 36, pp.355–365

Michael Moss (2013) The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food…

Susie Orbach (2006) Fat is a Feminist Issue


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