Menu calorie counts now mandatory nationwide

Let me subtitle this blog post as: Excuse me while I jump off a cliff.

Whatever your feelings on the passage of the Health Care Reform Bill this past Sunday (and I have many of them), I read the following in an AP Newswire article this evening:

A requirement tucked into the massive U.S health care bill will make calorie counts impossible for thousands of restaurants to hide and difficult for consumers to ignore. More than 200,000 fast food and other chain restaurants will have to include calorie counts on menus, menu boards and even drive-throughs.
Like I said: excuse me while I jump off a cliff.

My annoyance and irritation at this is mainly related to the fact that all throughout my recovery, my treatment team has drilled into my head that I shouldn't be obsessively counting calories, that my body doesn't need to count calories in order to maintain a healthy weight, and that one meal out is one meal out and if I want to have a burger and fries, I should have the burger and fries. Dammit. So if what my team is telling me is true, then what the hell is this push for calorie labels on everything?

Do I still count calories? In a more existential sort of way, yes. I am acutely, painfully aware of how many calories are in the food I eat. I might not always tally everything up like I used to, but I'm aware. I remain very wary of restaurants because I don't know what's really in the food I'm eating. I don't know how it was prepared, and I don't know exactly how many calories it has or what ingredients were used. Generally speaking, my tactic has been to order the item on the menu that seemed like it had the fewest calories. I'm pretty good at this. It's still my default menu scanning effort- any butter or cream sauces mean "loaded with fat," fried is also bad, sauteed could be dicey, broiled or grilled is okay, pasta and cheese are not good...and on and on it goes.

Yet again, my treatment team has tried to convince me that I don't need to scrutinize the menu for "hidden" calories and the minutiae of how my dish is prepared. Does it sound good? Okay, then.

The idea with placing calorie counts on the menu is that they will (in theory) change what people order. (For the record, research shows that it really hasn't changed ordering habits.) Taking the idea further, the idea is that if people knew how many calories were really in that dinner they ordered, they would order something different. Which, okay, fine, but shouldn't your criteria for what to order include a little more information that just calories? Are we really that stupid that we need to be (ahem) spoon fed our health and calorie information like this?

If some of my friends and relatives are to be believed, this healthcare reform bill may have saved us from dying of TEH FATZ only to help us die of TEH SOCIALISMZ. I'm not necessarily anti-government, but I'm just scratching my head over the wisdom of this idea. Our culture is more obsessed than ever with food and weight, and that hasn't seemed to change our average BMI by very much. And really, if the only reason people were fat was because they were stuffing their gullets with Big Macs at McDonald's, then I think we would have figured that out.

Another issue is that this law is aimed at chain restaurants, which tend to be (on average) cheaper and more affordable than swanky, upscale joints. Research has already shown that the higher your socioeconomic status, the lower your risk of obesity, and a Scientific American article last week pointed out the connection between obesity and food stamp recipients. In a sense, these rules imply that poor people are just too stupid to figure out what (and how much) to eat. Maybe eating fast food is the lack of better alternatives. Maybe it's being too damn tired to cook. Maybe it's all the food your kids know because it's the only restaurant in your area. Regardless, simply adding labels to the menus won't help if there's nowhere else to eat.

I'm just...annoyed. Irritated. And unsure what to make of it all.

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Lola said...

O rly? I can see your point, about how calorie information isn't as crucial to people's health as say, sugar content for diabetics. But I for one am looking forward to this. I haven't been able to comfortably eat out with friends or family in God knows how long. I only agree to eat out if I know ahead of time, and it's a restaurant with the nutritional info online. This will free me from that. I can revive a whole sphere of my social life. Saints be praised!

I Hate to Weight said...

i think the calorie counts aren't particularly accurate anyway. each portion isn't measured exactly the same way, each cook adds a different amount of oil, each waiter ladles different parts of the know what i mean.

i don't have any idea what this calorie count fiasco has to do with a healthcare bill. congress couldn't agree on the simplest options, but they could agree on this nonsense?

fact is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

Fugu Sushi said...

I've seen the calorie labels deter people from ordering large sizes a couple of times already and I don't visit fast food chains that much.

You forget we're not "most people". The vast majority of Americans don't have problems with starving to death. They have problems with bloating to death. Obesity is just as harmful as anorexia.

I like knowing how much I'm eating. It's a good estimate and makes me more comfortable when I order a meal.

I know while the calorie count won't deter people who want that Carl's Jr. Six Dollar Burger from ordering the burger, it just might prompt them to share the burger with a friend.

It's all about making informed decisions.

I, for one, think this was long over due, and all us ED people just need to get over it and accept we're a tiny, minuscule part of the population with a very unique problem that is not shared by the vast majority of the population.

If you feel that strongly that calorie labels will worsen your ED or you can't order with them around, then it's probably best to ask a friend to order for you without seeing the numbers.

Cathy (UK) said...

I will have to admit my current ignorance to changes in the US Healthcare system, but if those changes are leading to a system more comparable to the UK National Health Service (NHS) - where healthcare is available to ALL UK citizens, however much tax they pay, then the rationale is linked to MONEY.

There have been complaints for many years by some UK citizens that the UK Government operates a 'nanny state', attempting to 'over-regulate' citizens' eating/activity behaviours etc. The point is that obesity IS related to higher morbidity, and obesity-related illnesses are expensive to treat - draining NHS money. The rationale is that obesity-related illness and associated healthcare costs can be reduced if people take charge of their own health through lifestyle moderation.

But, as you point out Carrie, obesity is FAR more complex than just eating too much. Like anorexia nervosa (AN), emotional and genetic issues are involved in the development and maintenance of obesity.

As Fugo Sushi (above) argues, we (sufferers/former sufferers of AN) aren't 'most people'. We are a minority. Many more people are obese than anorexic. I know what it's like to be obsessed with calorie counts, and yes, nutritional labelling 'feeds' that anorexic obsession. I empathise completely with what you are saying, and I know how 'triggering' it is to see calorie counts everywhere.

However, that obsession is part of the illness of AN, and something we need to challenge and overcome in order to recover. Initally, as Fugu Sushi suggested, that may involve getting a friend to order for us so that we are not 'triggered'.

Eating Alone said...

I think that these counts are bogus anyway. Most of them are off and can be off by up to 19% That's just nuts.

That said, if I didn't have an ED and saw the number of calories that I was eating/ordering, I might not supersize it.

Anonymous said...

Most of my thoughts on this issue have already been said in the previous comments. I am very happy to hear about this part of the Health Care Reform Bill.

How is mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menus any different than requiring calorie/nutrition information on food labels in grocery stores?

Part of recovery is dealing with triggers like this. You can still have your burger and fries!

Melissa said...

As much as part of me would like to jump for joy at all the in-advance calorie research it'll save me, the concept just annoys me. I can't imagine this'll make any real difference in obesity. Calorie counts won't change the genetic fact that some people are and always will be obese no matter how much or how little they eat, nor will calorie counts change all the economic factors you already mentioned. And besides, it's insulting to people's intelligence. I seriously doubt anyone's going to go to McDonald's and be"WHOA! Did you know that Big Macs are BAD FOR YOU??? Whodathunkit..."
And I'm also annoyed for the same reason an above poster mentioned. Like...THIS is what the Republicans and Democrats could agree on? Really? All this irrational screaming about death panels and socialism, but no, everyone can concur on the "fatties much just be so oblivious that they don't realize certain foods are high in calories" thing?

Adrianna said...

I am just disgusted that with all the people in this nation who are seriously ill and who either cannot afford or access care, or whose care is inadequate, that THIS was even IN the bill.

The fact of the matter is, there is no one healthy weight and fast food is no different from any other food. If I drink too much water, I could die of hyponatremia, and I could drink too little and suffer from that, too.

The only healthy diet there is is one that provides a minimum of calories or nutrients necessary for survival. Period. Food does not have the power to prevent or cure any disease, nor does it have the power to cause disease except nutritional deficiences.

Even if it did, not everyone cares about what might happen to them when they are 50. Not everyone expects to live until they are fifty. If you're one of those people who eats out of garbage cans or exchanges sex for food and money, you don't CARE what you're eating. This exercise in "educating" the poor on what to eat is really an upper-class indulgence.

I'm disgusted that people are just sitting back and letting the government invade their lives like this.

Last of all, I'm disgusted at the level of prejudice that spurred this, not just against fat people but against people with various illnesses and who lead politically incorrect lifestyles.

Don't get me started on the connection between weight and food stamps. It could be from any number of things. Poor people are substantially more likely to be ethnic minorities who are genetically predisposed to be overweight. They are more likely to have been poor as children and to have suffered nutritional deficiences, so their extra fat is a way for their bodies to ensure survival. People who are poor, or who are ethnic minorities, are also more likely to suffer the stress and health problems associated not with their lifestyles, but *stress.* It may not have anything to do with the availability of fruits and vegetables.

Oh, and there's the whole dieting is not healthy and actually causes health problems thing. And the whole might trigger EDs in some people thing. Why don't these people get a clue? Which is FAR more dangerous than carrying a few extra pounds (whatever that means.)

Never fear, I have a solution. Go to McDonald's, order whatever I like, ignore the information, and enjoy. I'm over 18 and literate. The government can bite me.

raspberryclover said...

Aside from what my ED thinks about calorie counts, I have a couple of rational thoughts:

Americans have no idea what's in most of the food they eat. Those long words on nutrition labels? We ignore 'em.

Ingredients that you have no idea how to find or make in your own kitchen (high fructose corn syrup???) are KILLING this country by getting Americans addicted to processed sugars and fats and causing them to have heart attacks and become diabetic.

Personally, I want to avoid eating too much of those "mystery" ingredients and get my family and friends to do the same so we can live longer healthier lives. This doesn't mean avoiding sugar and fat, it means choosing to eat mostly the types that are less processed and weren't developed in a laboratory somewhere.

Nutrition labeling gives people the power to know what is in their food and decide intelligently if they want to eat it. I believe very strongly that it should be illegal to sell a food product on such a large scale as McDonalds without a label containing the ingredients and nutrition information.

A:) said...

I like this idea and I wish it would come to Canada. Really, I think that this is no different than labels in a grocery store.

The only qualms I have with it, as other posters have mentioned is accuracy. These counts could be extremely off and I am more prone to double the calorie count or add 50% to be safe than to believe "their" calorie count. Still, I think it provides a reasonable estimate to know that some meal might range from 700-1100calories. It is better than believing the meal is 2500 calories or 500 calories.

I guess I really don't see this as a big deal. Those who disregard current labels, will disregard these new ones. I also think consumers have a right to know what is in their food to make informed decisions about their diet.

Even if it does not change dietary habits (and it likely won't) it may generate some awareness.

"All knowledge is worth having."

You can choose the battles you fight and there are more important things related to health to be focusing on than arbitrary numbers on a menu.

Sometimes I believe that this oversensitivity could be a symptom of the ED itself.


Kathryn said...

@ Fugu Sushi -

We are not a "tiny, miniscule part of the population" ... 1/3 of college-aged women exhibit eating disordered behavior. Fully 10% of women in this nation have a diagnosable eating disorder, and that's an extremely conservative estimate. So, that means that at least 5% of the overall population is eating disordered (clinically), not to mention the population of people with EDNOS or other, potentially milder forms of disordered eating.

I would say that our voice is just as important as any other contingency, and your "get over it" message is a bunch of hooey. Also, the whole "anti-fat" theme of your message isn't very inclusive ... smacks of a little bit of intolerance, hmm?

Angela E. Gambrel Lackey said...

One of the things I have always hated about places like IP, restaurants, holiday meals, special events, etc., is the fact that I often can't figure out the food's calorie count all that accurately. I'm still very obsessive about how many calories I am consuming, and knowing the calorie counts make me feel safe.

As a person battling AN, that is not a good thing. It means that even when I am trying to eat better, I am still restricting because I am sticking to the foods that I know the calorie counts of in order to calm my anxiety, thus indulging in one of my ED behaviors.

So part of me was really happy to see the little labels at McDonald's, Taco Bell, etc., because I could eat something there without do an Internet search. This doesn't really spell recovery in my book. The other part was pissed, because once in a very great while I would decide to treat myself and try to eat like a normal person; now I'm faced with the damn calories staring me in the face and the whole point of the exercise (try to eat something outside my comfort zone) is ruined. So I either skip the attempt or eat and panic, then take part in even less healthy ED behaviors.

Now for those without eating disorders, I doubt if the calorie count is going to make a damn difference. I know many people who are going to order the Big Mac whether it has 500 calories or 1,000 calories if they want it. They just don't give a damn about calorie counts; it's not part of their psyche and it definitely isn't a 24/7 obsession like it is for me and many others.

So it's pointless for those who might need it, and dangerous for those of us who have spent years listening to our therapists drum into our heads that calories don't count - now we can count calories with even less effort.

One last point - I agree with Adrianna about the fact that this whole stupid thing was inserted into a bill of such importance. Talk about adding pork! (Sorry for the pun.)

Cathy (UK) said...

Gah, just left another comment and it's gone...

Erica said...

Calorie counts are typically way off and portion sizes change. When you go out to eat do you really need to know how many calories you are consuming? I think not. Enjoy your food, enjoy the company you are with and feed your body. As a mother, I am horrified that my child will see these calorie counts and start to question her body and what it needs to grow. We need to learn to eat intuitively, we do not need a "calorie counter" to help us do what we can do if we listen to our bodies. I encourage people who are dependent on these types of things to visit

Libby said...

Oh, Jesus...

Samantha said...

I sort of get the rationale about making calorie and all nutritional information available to consumers. I just...I can never shake the thought that this is supposed to shaming. That I'm supposed to look at the menu and have my eyes open to what a disgusting pig I've been to eat so many calories. I don't have an eating disorder (per se; when I was younger there was a lot that may have been BED) but I have a diet-obsessed mother, and I still feel like anything over 300 calories is too big for a meal. Because that was what the counts were for the Lean Cuisine meals.

Nevermind that i was always famished a couple hours later because I hadn't had enough to eat. Nevermind that nowadays I eat two meals a day plus snacks. Now I go to the Quiznos on my school's campus and see my tuna sandwich has 700 calories in it, and can't help thinking what a whale I have to be to eat that many in one meal. And I just can't get over the thought that this is what they WANT to happen. For me to feel shitty and consider getting a 200 calorie salad for dinner instead.

Anonymous said...

Cathy UK you have no IDEA. Our nanny state is out-nannying your nanny state, and alas, we do not, and will not, have anything CLOSE to universal care. I for one prayed (in vain, I realized) for a single-payer system like the one in Canada, knowing that an NHS-type system is completely out of the question in our profit-driven society. I've heard recently of a push by some in government to ban smoking INSIDE OUR OWN CARS. I do not smoke, and would not allow someone to smoke in my car, and would not get into the car of a smoker unless I could be sure they would not smoke in my presence. But that's as far as it goes- if people want to smoke in their cars, it's no business of mine or the governments.

But I digress. I dine out often and fortunately, do not go to fast food chains. I have no interest in calorie counts. If people can't tell how much they are eating by listening to their own bodies, publishing calorie counts would be such a crutch that it would ruin any chances of their learning to do that. My own theory about the cause of obesity in at least some people is that in the U.S. we have the feed bag on ALL THE TIME. I was at a conference yesterday where they served: breakfast, mid-morning snack about two hours later, lunch about two hours after that, mid afternoon snack about 2 hours into the afternoon portion, and appetizers with cocktails immediately afterward. And there were people who loaded up plates at each of these opportunities (washing it all down, of course, with a Diet Coke). That is surely a major cause of not only obesity, but our losing touch with our bodies, hunger and satiation. Food is there, so like Pavlov's dogs we eat, never bothering to ask "Am I hungry?". Once one has that skill it is possible to eat any type of food at any type of restaurant, and stop when one has had enough, without having to look up a calories list.


Cathy (UK) said...

Annie (comment above)

Having read your comment 3 times, in which you are presumably justifying your assumption that I have "no idea" I am still missing the point of what you are attempting to say ...

With regard to my comment above (comment no. 4), I began by explaining my current 'ignorance' on the recent USA Healthcare reform - because I haven't read it in detail as yet. It is not on my list of priorities because I live in the UK. However, I was suggesting a possible (not definitive) reasoning behind the move to including calorie counts on fast foods in the USA - based upon the rationale that is often used in the UK.

Interestingly, on the National (UK) news only yesterday there was talk of a move towards a banning of smoking in cars - mainly for the sake of children who can develop lung disease when exposed to smoke cigarette smoke. (BTW, I have never smoked either).

You write: " If people can't tell how much they are eating by listening to their own bodies, publishing calorie counts would be such a crutch that it would ruin any chances of their learning to do that."

I'm not sure how much Physiology or Biochemistry you know, but in ALL eating disorders (EDs) there is a dysregulation of appetite such that it doesn't equate to bodily demands. This dysregulation and poor interoceptive wareness can play a significant role in the driving of an ED. For these reasons people may over- or under-eat.

I, for one, had restricting anorexia nervosa for nearly 30 yrs. After that many years of restricting I had virtually no appetite whatsoever. Had I continued to eat in accordance with my appetite I would be dead by now. In order to gain weight (> 30 pounds - which saved my life) I had to eat a LOT more than I felt like eating. It was ESSENTIAL for me to count calories as a I gained weight to ensure that I was eating enough (i.e. > 2000-2500 kcals). Sometimes I had to eat while out and it was helpful to know approx. how many calories were in the food I chose to ensure that I ATE ENOUGH.

Fortunately my body is adjusting and my appetite is now a better indicator of my bodily demands - through practise of eating the correct number of calories. To calorie count during weight gain - and hence to consume the amount of energy that my body needed to become healthy was essential.

Cathy (UK) said...

*interoceptive awareness

* 2500 kcals PER DAY (or more, if my body could cope with it as a consequence of gastroparesis)

malpaz said...

i think it is a stupid idea, it will make people stupider, not to mention and this is a predicition- i think people will get fatter. those who dont count their calories now eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. simple science of the body they understand and they do not obsess. the only thing this is hurting are those who even know what a calorie is (which is the poorest measurement of food consumption known to mankind).

i see the results of this being more obsession by those watching calories, and the overweight who are going to be turning to "lower cal" options loaded with processed junk, rancid oil, and artificial nonsense.

to say the least this whole thing pisses me off. rant end!

ddd said...

In terms of your last comment, what to make of it all, make nothing of. It isn't about you. It's about one third of Americans being obese, the increase of eating out of the house of the past twenty years, the increase in serving sizes, and the BILLION of dollars in obesity related health care cost.

If you're going to follow your health care team's advice, then just ignore it.

Julie O'Toole, MD, MPH said...

I am right behind you in jumping off that cliff!

Julie O'Toole Kartini Clinic

KL said...

They've been doing this where I live for a while now. For those who like it, it's good information to have. For those who hate it, the calorie count is written in such a small font it's pretty easy to ignore.

Anonymous said...

Amanda Gary
I commend your annoyance and need to speak up about this “insert” within the Heath (Lack of) Care Bill. I want to address a few different aspects of your post. First of all, I have been in the restaurant industry since 1994. So I bring some slightly different view on this subject. As an industry, the restaurant business takes advantage of any marketing ploy that it can. A chain will cash in on any trend out there that will increase their sales. Over the years I have seen a few marketing ploys that were just nauseating … Apple Bees with their Weight Watchers “point values” next to menu items! Ruby Tuesday’s beat everyone to the punch with the Low Carb revolution that took place many years ago, and don’t quote me but I’m pretty sure they also jumped in on the South Beach Diet craze as well? And don’t they have a computer kiosk in their waiting area already, so that guests can access the caloric value of menu items? My point is that some chain restaurants will jump right in and embrace this calorie value posting because they think they can spin it from a marketing stand point!
Frequent diners do not generally care about the caloric value of the food they are ordering. I can honestly say that in all my years working in this industry I’ve NEVER had a guest inquire about the fat content, calories, the carbs or anything else for that matter! The only questions we get are concerning food allergies, because of the severity of ingestion. They are out to dinner because of an occasion and (or) convenience. Their socioeconomic level gives them the ability to dine out with higher frequency. This calorie listing will just go by the way side for most diners. It will not change how they make their menu choices… now the strategic placement of items on the menu will affect their choices… but that’s a totally different subject all together!
Your statement, and I quote, “poor people are just too stupid to figure out what (and how much) to eat” is 100% on the money (in my opinion)! Instead of listing the caloric value of menu items, maybe we should make a list of what food is available in all areas of the country! Maybe we should list how many fast food restaurants are concentrated within areas of lower socioeconomic status! Maybe we should do a price comparison between fresh fruit and vegetables and Double Cheese Burger Value meals! Good wholesome and nutritious food isn’t available to everyone and it is time for a change, and I bet that the correlation between food stamps and obesity would drop dramatically!
Education about good wholesome and nutritious food is the key to helping people lead a healthier lifestyle. Making these foods available to all people at a fair price is the ONLY way.

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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.

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