Calorie counting's seal of approval

If you ride the New York subway, you may have noticed a poster like this:

The goal of the campaign? Pretty obvious: to make people aware of how many calories are in their food.

Not merely content with posting calorie counts in chain restaurants, NYC has begun a new campaign to tell people how many calories they're supposed to eat each day, and how all of their "unhealthy" food choices are going to fit in (or not).

Craving a burrito with sour cream and guacamole? What if you knew it had more than half the calories you should eat in a day?

No, you'll still crave the burrito. You'll just feel guilty.

The Health Department says that the average American should eat no more than 2000 calories per day. They, of course qualified it by saying
"The 2,000-calorie figure is an average. Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations vary by age, gender and level of activity. Men can consume more calories than women without gaining weight, and 20-year-olds more than 60-year-olds."

So if all of these "little changes" in our diets are so important, then why are you giving us a number that could be off by some of these "little changes"? Two thousand calories per day is a blunt average, and most people don't need 2,000 calories per day. They need a little more, a little less. But when you're splitting hairs over a bran muffin, maybe you should get a better idea of what the "average" adult needs.

I read this, and I felt guilty. Why? I eat more than 2000 calories each day. I realize that my history of anorexia doesn't make me the "average" American, but my knee-jerk instinct was that I was doing something wrong by fueling my body properly. It's that never-ending drone of much that our culture can't seem to get enough of.

Will these ads change people's food choices? Probably. I feel self-conscious enough when ordering food, let alone having the whole freaking world know exactly how much I'm eating. Would they guy behind the counter care? Probably not. Would I be aware of this? Most likely. Would I worry about it anyway? Yep.

I wouldn't want to order something high calorie, because I would be afraid of people looking down at me. Thinking I'm "weak" and extolling their own virtue for ordering low fat and sugar free. Or feeling guilty that I'm not ordering the lowest calorie item on the menu. I'd like to say that I'd go in and order whatever the hell I liked, thank you very much, but I know I probably wouldn't. I would stand in front of the register, quaking in fear, thinking, "I didn't order too much, did I?"

People aren't going to go to a restaurant and think, "Gee, what do I feel like having?" No. They're going to think, "How many calories do I have left to spend today?"

It's not like accounting, a neat sequence of credits and debits, plusses and minuses. Someone forgot to give the Big Guy in the Sky that notice, because your body counts calories much different than a calculator. Besides, we know how well our governments can manage finances- do you really want them managing your calories in the same way?

These signs have simply driven home the point:

Eating is a sin, thinness a virtue, and dieting a chastity belt. And eating disordered behaviors come with a health department seal of approval.
(I just read that the NYC Health Department is going to be starting a BLOG about CALORIE COUNTING. Which is really like anorexia boot camp, if you ask me. Needless to say, I won't be reading...)


Lisa said...

I'm flabbergasted. I can't imagine how much this costs, in both monetary and psychological terms.

Karen said...

There are many tools to self-educate yourself about calories and nutrition whether you are eating at home or dining out. You can look foods up on the internet, buy a calorie counting book, or if you really what to educate yourself buy yourself a nutrition scale. For those individuals who are interested in their health, they will can self educate themselves without costing tax dollars on most people who really don't care about their health.

Carrie Arnold said...


You're making a HUGE assumption: that fat people don't care about their health. Which really isn't true. Some fat people don't, but so do some skinny people. The difference? Their metabolisms.

I object to this because a) calorie counting is one of THE MOST COMMON eating disordered behaviors and it makes you anxious and obsessed, not necessarily healthy and b) there's no evidence that knowing the calories in your food actually causes long-term behavior changes and improved health. We've had nutrition facts on our food for over a decade, but that hasn't made people skinnier. Yeah, yeah, people eat out more, but it's still only 1/3 of meals.

Calorie counting is really just screwing with your body's natural regulatory systems. I do believe that such information should be readily available to those who want/need it (allergies, medical conditions, just neurotic about calories). But food is now assiciated with guilt, which is the exact WRONG way we should be going.

IrishUp said...


Now, an entire population is being told only to eat X amount of calories? By the DPH?

Can I borrow a crowbar? Can't seem to get jaw off floor

Anonymous said...

Well, Karen, I would be perfectly happy if NOT ONE MORE PENNY of tax dollars was spent on educating me, or my fellow uncaring-about-our-health Americans, about calories and nutrition. This is not a good use of those dollars. We have poverty, crime, and crumbling educational "facilities".

As for guilt etc., I am fortunately (finally) old enough to be over all that. In fact, I have to stop myself from feeling my own brand of smug superiority when I order food, because I order what the hell I want, without a thought to calories or nutrition. So, as you can see, that money would truly be wasted on me.


mary said...

I'm looking forward to eating ONE of those guacamole burritos this weekend but it helped me to learn that avocados, while a great food, are higher in calories than I realized and had me steadily gaining weight on my already comfy body size this summer. I was hiking and working but thought my thyroid was playing games again. Nope, it was eating along with others, too much for me. Had I listened to my stomach I'd have eaten 1, not 2 of those delicious treats. It was plenty.
Now am I saying I want them wasting money, no doubt federal money as well, telling us to limit out intake? hell no. We're already being shouted at every day by misinformation from other sources.
I know a lot about nutrients but I was not aware of my intake in this case.For me gaining weight effects my energy and health in a negative way. Now I am and I'm still able to indulge, but with awareness. Awareness is the key. With an ED it already knows the counts, it already wants to control, and it prides itself on succeeding in making it's victim feel guilty. SO! Please do not feel guilt about eating whatever you eat. I know I'm going to enjoy my meals and maintain myself for my best health guilt free.
(please don't wallop me with a crow bar or that wand) This is weird stuff to talk about but I wanted you to see it from my world view.

sandy said...

I'm blown away by this post. Fortunately, I haven't seen one of these posters in Illinois or I'd have tried to rip in down.

In recovery, I try to eat what my body tells me to eat regardless of the calories.

But, still very bothered that the government or anyone for the matter should try to regulate or administer information that is completely up to the individual.

CookieGirl said...

wow. Not looking forward to flying into New York at christmas and being greeted by these signs.

From a marketing point of view, I wonder who their target audience is? Most educated adults know that a muffin has a lot of calories...I can only assume they intend for guilt to act an agent for behavior change. Doesn't sound too healthy!

marcella said...

I think you'll probably be able to ignore the silliness of these posters in NY cookiegirl. There's a LOT else to see. While the calorie counting in the restaurants was confusing (I kept thinking they must be the prices and trying to work out how many pounds £ to the calorie) it doesn't detract from the fact that it's a lovely city. Take the good and toss the bad.

Carrie Arnold said...

There is a lot to see in NYC. I've been there twice, but didn't get a chance to do sightseeing either time.

I do still mean to go- and it appears I have more friends there than I thought!

Crimson Wife said...

I suppose it's better than those women's magazines that always seem to recommend 1200-1400 kcal/day. But that's not saying much...

Post a Comment

Newer Post Older Post Home

ED Bites on Facebook!

ED Bites is on Twitter!

Search ED Bites

About Me

My photo
I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

Drop me a line!

Have any questions or comments about this blog? Feel free to email me at

nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


Popular Posts


Recent Comments