WHAT CALORIE LABELING ON MENUS REALLY MEANS, AND WHAT TO DO INSTEAD

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The government is betting big that increasing a nationwide focus on calorie labeling will improve the public health of our society. Let’s consider its other significant implications.


BY: KATHERINE METZELAAR, MSN, RDN, CD

The debate on how important counting calories has been around for decades and is not new for those that are pursuing weight loss. The standard nutritional science suggests monitoring calories as a way to lose weight, purporting the “calories in, calories out” model to maintain and lose weight long-term. This is noteworthy in the context of a newer governmental policy that recently went into effect.

The FDA implemented an Obama-era policy that requires restaurants and other food outlets with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts for all food and beverages served. This law applies to everything from amusement parks to grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants and vending machines.

It is true that this change could have a profound impact on how we think about food and nutrition, but is it a positive one? Are there negative implications to having the calories displayed on every food and beverage that we decide to consume when dining out?

Let’s explore this further.

We now know, from years of research, that diets are not sustainable for the majority of the population.  They are also the greatest predictor of weight gain and weight cycling in the long term. And because there are proponents on both sides of the debate on whether calories are an effective way to influence how we make our food decisions, it makes eating that much more confusing.

The most likely outcome: paralyzed with fear and confusion when dining out, buying groceries, and sharing a meal with friends.

Simply put, counting calories is a tool of dieting. Such a high-profile emphasis exclusively around calories disconnects you from your body’s internal hunger and fullness cues, and instead places the emphasis on external guidelines for how you should eat. In fact, we are failing to note there are other factors that influence weight, while strictly focusing on the amount of calories consumed.

Instead of counting calories, here are 3 ways to consider that may be more helpful to your health in the long run.

1. Pay attention to your hunger levels.

While this may seem simple, practicing it can be challenging. From the media to our parents and peers, we have been told when we should eat, how we should eat, what quantities of food we should be eating, and tricks to ignore hunger. Over time, this causes us to disconnect from the body’s subtle cues of hunger, and we lose touch with ways to honor our hunger. Take small breaks throughout the day to gauge your hunger and ask yourself: “Do I feel hungry now? How do I know I feel hunger? Does my hunger feel pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

2. Seek pleasure in the foods you choose to eat.

How many times have you heard, “This is so good, it’s dangerous!” or “It tastes so good I just can’t stop!” ? Culturally, we have a collective fear of pleasurable foods. Dieting, counting calories, “healthy eating/healthy lifestyle”, and restrictive eating can take away pleasure from food and create the myth that pleasure equals forbidden or bad.

And yet, we know that feeling a sense of pleasure from the foods that we eat is essential to listening to our fullness levels, and can in fact decrease episodes of overeating that stems from deprivation. What would it be like if you decided to include pleasure at your meals? What are your meals missing that you might want to include? Would anything change for you if you prioritized pleasure.

3. Give yourself permission to eat.

After years of hearing myths around dieting and restriction, there are still many food rules that don’t give you full permission to eat all foods. This is essential because restriction can lead to overeating or binging, which many have experienced first hand. How many times have you gone on a diet or a protocol only to find yourself overeating the foods that you have eliminated as soon as you “break the diet”?

This is followed by blaming yourself for not having succeeded, when in reality, it’s the diet that failed you. Is there any food that is off-limits for you? What would it be like to give yourself permission to eat all foods?

Culturally, we expect everyone to be the same size, place the emphasis on weight loss instead of health behaviors, and rarely recognize that genetics, hormonal changes, medications, socioeconomic status, race, stress, trauma, food scarcity, stigma, and poverty that can all affect a body’s size throughout a lifetime.

Our diet culture encourages us to continue to pursue weight loss in the name of “health” regardless of what has to be done to achieve it.  

Think twice about the “benefits” of relying on calorie counting, and listen to your body instead.

Adapted from the original article.
HEADER IMAGE: ALEX HOLYOAKE

Katherine Metzelaar, MSN, RDN, CD is a Seattle-based registered dietitian and nutrition therapist who helps individuals repair their relationship with food free from perfectionism, fear, and shame. She works with clients to create more flexibility and freedom with food, giving them the tools to decrease their fear of food. Learn more about Katherine at Bravespace Nutrition.

 

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