When a person or agency is very concerned about something, they often do one of two things:
- Research and investigate, try to determine what factors may be contributing to the problem, address each one individually, and slowly work toward improvement.
- Slap together a band-aid response, schlep the work onto everyone else, and congratulate themselves for having “done something.”
Despite the very well-meaning and good intentions of the FDA and their concern for public health, they seem to have gone with Door #2 when it comes to addressing overweight and obesity.
By May 7, 2018, all restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide will be required to post calorie information on menus and menu boards. Plenty of restaurants have gone ahead and met the requirement. The intended effect is to help inform people of what they’re eating and help them make "better" choices.
So far, that doesn’t appear to have been effective, but there have already plenty of unintended consequences. Unfortunately and mind-bogglingly (is that even a word?), the effectiveness of posting calorie information wasn’t studied all that much before the practice as mandated. Can you imagine that for literally any other nationwide public health measure?
“Hey guys, new flu vaccine is out. We didn’t test its efficacy and don’t really know if it works, but we’re gonna just go ahead and roll it out because it sounds good. We’re pretty sure it will help people not get the flu.”
So yeah. Now that there is a bit more research- get this- it turns out that labeling calorie information on menus has little to no impact on consumers’ choices. When one is observed at all, the impact is weak and inconsistent at best. And guess what else? People with BMIs (I know, I know, but that’s another conversation for another day) in the overweight or obese categories didn’t change their choices based on menu labeling; the only people who altered their choices were those in the “normal” and underweight categories. So the only people effected by menu labeling don’t need it anyway, and it had almost no benefit for the people who it was actually designed to help.
Head, meet desk.
So menu labeling doesn’t seem to work, what’s the big deal? It's a wasted effort but no harm done, right? Actually, yeah. Harm is being done.
While calorie information may be neutral or uninteresting for many, for some it is overtly harmful. For those who have or are at risk for eating disorders & disordered eating, this “helpful” health intervention backfires. The number of calories in a single item or even a single meal is all but irrelevant. Our diet culture tells us “less is more,” so now those vulnerable to disordered eating will choose the lowest calorie option every time- or end up choosing nothing at all because all of the numbers seem too big. Without a basic understanding of how nutrition works, how many calories are required for basic functioning, and how to balance nutrition intake throughout the day/week/forever, this number only serves to shame and encourage restriction. It’s as useless (but way more damaging) as giving consumers the atomic number of potassium. There is a lot more you need to know before that becomes even slightly relevant.
And then there’s this insanity. In order to help give the calorie number some context, some suggest adding a physical activity equivalent to the number of calories in an item. For example: Cheeseburger 🐼 calories= 🐢 miles, suggesting you must walk 🐢 miles to "earn" or make up for that cheeseburger.
Okay, y’all? This is exercise bulimia. This is purging. A human’s greatest caloric need every day is for basic functioning- a beating heart, a thinking brain, lungs breathing in and out, making new skin to replace what you lost when your kitten scratched you, growing hair, etc. Just you, sitting around being you, requires WAY more than the 🐼 calories in that cheeseburger. You don’t have to walk it off and you don’t have to rub dirt on it. You don’t have to earn your food. And using compensatory behaviors to “make up for” calories eaten is one of the criteria that we use when awarding a person with an eating disorder diagnosis.
Plus, here’s the kicker. In that study I was talking about, the people who were given calorie information or calories + exercise equivalent information then perceived physical activity as less enjoyable than the people who were given no information. Telling people how many calories were in their food and how much exercise it would take to burn off made them less likely to exercise. Why? I dunno. Maybe because it seems hopeless; if I have to walk 🐢 miles just to work off one lousy cheeseburger, I’m never going to come out ahead. Or maybe because doing penance for eating food is just damned unappealing.
Unfortunately, this information isn’t going away, but it doesn’t have to rule us or ruin us. If you are a nutrition nerd and find it academically interesting, have fun. If it is triggering and is likely to prevent you from being able to eat at all, then you have my full, unreserved, enthusiastic permission to ignore it entirely. If that is too hard right now, then this is a great time to start supporting small businesses. Remember, it is only chains with 20 or more locations that must honor this requirement. Be a hipster and avoid the mainstream.
I’ll see you there.
-The study I'm referring to is "Exploring enhanced menu labels’ influence on fast food selections and exercise-related attitudes, perceptions, and intentions."
-I am forever grateful to my college algebra teacher Jay Abramson, who long ago introduced me to the practice of using smileys and small animals in place of numbers to make them seem less threatening.