Food Labeling

The Government's Mandatory Calorie Counts May Be Hazardous to Your Health

For some people, calorie counts fuel shame and send them chasing after numbers instead of listening to their bodies.


Vending machine
Phillie Casablanca / Foter / CC BY

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims it is helping America stay healthy with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's mandate to display calories on restaurant menus and vending machines. Recent studies have shown that this mandate actually has little or no impact on the ordering behaviors of the general population. What has yet to be addressed, however, is the deleterious effect of this mandate on the estimated twenty million women and ten million men who struggle with eating disorders during their lifetimes (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, and Hudson, 2011). For those working toward recovery, this policy impedes a foundational part of their efforts.

Our culture is by no measure unaware of health and weight.  In fact, by elementary school, 40-60 percent of girls are already concerned with their weight or afraid of being fat (Smolak, 2011). The cultural saturation of messages promoting thinness combines in a subset of individuals with genetic, biological, and social factors that make them vulnerable to the mental health condition most associated with fatality. Eating disorders can manifest in wide range, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Many people with eating disorders develop an obsessional focus on numbers: weight, clothing size, calories, fat grams, and body measurements. The preoccupation with numbers can consume their lives in a never-ending effort to count, cut, and control. Calorie counting is rampant among the various forms eating disorders can take. Unfortunately, this behavior is not only a potential symptom of an eating disorder—it is one that exacerbates the disease. When people are deprived or restricted, they are at dramatically increased risk of binge eating. This is because of a built-in survival mechanism that tells people to seek sources of fat and sugar for energy to prepare for the next famine. When they experience deprivation, efforts to store energy kick into gear, which can lead to a cycle of binge eating, guilt and shame, restriction, and in some cases purging. At this point the body once more perceives deprivation, and the cycle begins again.

A fundamental part of recovery from an eating disorder, then, is avoiding the focus on numbers and learning to provide the body with consistent nutrition. As a clinical psychologist working with eating disorders, I ask my clients to stop weighing, stop counting, and stop eliminating entire foods or food groups. I ask them to go back to restaurants that they have avoided in their efforts to control their bodies and behaviors. I ask them to learn to trust themselves. The FDA is training them not to.

The FDA's mandate to display calories has a devastating effect on the recovery of those who seek to heal from this disease. Put aside the fact that a calorie count is not representative of the nutritional value or nutrient content of the meal. This initiative perpetuates the idea that numbers should be a focal point in managing health. The message that these individuals fight to correct in therapy is reinforced every time they step into a chain restaurant and see long lists of calorie counts. To avoid this message, people with eating disorders would have to avoid a vast number of food establishments, further limiting the lives they are working so hard to expand. 

For those who do continue to dine out, another consequence presents itself. Both my underweight and obese clients say they experience increased shame when they see calories posted next to food they may wish to order. For those with anorexia, this tends to reinforce the idea that avoiding the food is noble and strong. For those who binge eat, some say they avoid what it is they truly want as a result of the shame and end up binge eating later. Others make the ordering choice that they would have made without the calories posted, but feel worse about themselves afterward. This may sound like it would deter people from making certain ordering choices, but shame (unfortunately or not) is seldom an effective tool in behavior modification. If it were, eating disorders and many addictive disorders would have ceased to exist long ago.

There is also a subset of individuals with eating disorders who choose to push back against the constant messages they receive, both internally and externally, about what to eat. These clients tell me that they react to the information on the menus by tossing caution to the wind and ordering out of resentment and rebellion, trying to prove a point to an audience they cannot see or name.

With calorie counts fueling both shame and the pursuit of an arbitrary definition of health, my clients find themselves listening to numbers instead of to their bodies. Many of my clients tell me they do not even read the food descriptions on menus anymore—they skip straight to looking at the calorie counts, and pick whichever item has the lowest caloric content. While nutritional and psychological therapy works to help individuals with eating disorders eat intuitively, caloric labeling urges them to base their food decisions on a piece of data that is separate from individual nutritional needs.

Health is a noble pursuit, and one I certainly support in all of my clients. However, forced awareness of caloric content in pursuit of health is misguided. Not only does it suggest that thinness is the primary measure of health—which research repeatedly shows is not the case—but it impedes movement toward true health in a population at high risk. As is usually the case, one-size-fits all public policy, even with the best of intentions, always carries with it unintended consequences. 

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  1. I can cut down all the verbiage a great deal;

    Diet, nutrition, and weight control are complicated and subtle issues, with solutions that tend to vary by individual. Governments are bad at complicated, worse at subtle, and tend to produce One Size Fits None solutions. The farther the government is from the site of the problem, the worse the solution is likely to be. There is no good reason for the Federal Government to involve itself in diet and nutrition except on the very broadest level, and a multitude of bad ones.

    1. It’s simpler and more generic.

      When accountability exceeds authority, there are scapegoats.

      When authority exceeds accountability, there is corruption.

      Incentives matter.

      1. When authority exceeds common sense, there is idiocy.

  2. The FDA’s mandate to display calories has a devastating effect on the recovery of those who seek to heal from this disease.

    I understand Singer’s point. However, with all due respect, if seeing some numbers is going to be “devastating” then you have a problem bigger than an eating disorder.

    1. Perhaps “devastating” seems like overstating it. But the numbers thing really can be an issue. It’s a way to keep score, I suppose, and so it feeds into those compulsive tendencies. I’ve said the same thing about the BMI testing in schools. I can’t imagine that it makes a difference to most people, but for those who have issues–or kids who have parents with issues–it could create problems where none existed before, not to mention that some kids tend to grow taller and then “fill out” while others tend to grow out and then up.

  3. he estimated twenty million women and ten million men who struggle with eating disorders during their lifetimes

    20 million? Jesus, chicks all have fucked up body images. Now excuse me, I have to precisely weigh and measure my meals for the next week to make sure that I maximize my post-workout protein synthesis window.

    1. Maybe if you weren’t so fat someone would love you. Like your mom.

    2. The struggle is real

      1. Honestly. I have worked as a cook at a University for 10 years. The whole calorie counting thing from my observations, is very destructive.

        1. On a more positive note. Dancers, and strippers know how to eat. =)

  4. I don’t want politicians making choices for me about my food based on what’s good for teenage girls with eating disorders–either way.

    “Recent studies have shown that this mandate actually has little or no impact on the ordering behaviors of the general population.”

    One of the problems with progressives is that they’re extremely utilitarian in outlook. Utilitarians are always trying to quantify things–how can good progressives control other people’s behavior if they can’t quantify what they’re trying to control?

    Of course, qualitative judgements are fundamentally unquantifiable–a fact that is apparently beyond the comprehension of your average progressive. In fact, the relative desirability of various quantities is ultimately a qualitative consideration (especially from the consumer’s perspective).

    Anyway, this is all leading to progressives being able to restrict the number of calories various foods contain. If people aren’t responding to the labeling, then the packaged food companies and fast food restaurants will respond when the progressives mandate calorie limits for various items through regulation.

    From home loans to big gulps, progressives really don’t think people should be allowed to make choices for themselves–not when people are subject to irrational criteria like qualitative considerations.

    1. Almost all the time, I want the government to do less. If the best thing for the government to do for teenage girls with eating disorders is nothing, then I’m fine with that. I agree with pretty much everything else you’re saying. I’m sure you’re relieved to hear that.

    2. qualitative judgements are fundamentally unquantifiable–a fact that is apparently beyond the comprehension of your average progressive.

      So only progressives should be allowed on juries where damages are based on pain & suffering?

      1. Yeah, I guess there are questions about whether progressives should be allowed on juries to decide cases based on, say, religious questions, but I suppose that’s addressed in the voir dire process.

        Certainly, if someone thinks that the First Amendment doesn’t protect free exercise, only freedom from establishment, that would be problematic for jurors deciding a case based on a question of religious freedom. Hell, I’ve met progressives who seem to think that the First Amendment only protects religious beliefs if the religious beliefs aren’t stupid!

        Yeah, I can see how quantifying pain in civil judgements would be difficult for any jury, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that–as a matter of public policy–progressives generally don’t want people making qualitative decisions for themselves.

        If it’s 2009 and you’ve lost your job, and you have to choose between trying to save your home from foreclosure or buying health insurance? Progressives don’t want you making choices like that for yourself. They’d rather have a law for that! They don’t want you making choices for yourself about whether you take on a risky home loan, whether you own a gun, etc., etc.

        1. Using the coercive power of government to force individuals to make qualitative sacrifices for the alleged common good is what being a progressive is all about. I can’t think of any progressive cause that doesn’t include that idea in some way. Meanwhile, libertarianism is all about how individuals should be free to make choices for themselves. I can’t think of any libertarian issue that doesn’t encompass that idea somehow either.

    3. Everybody’s utilitarian, whether they believe it or not.

      1. From an individual perspective, it might seem that way. That’s what Adam Smith’s observations were all about–that when individuals are dealing with each other in markets, they often behave as if a benevolent force were guiding them to do what was in the best interests of the group. Markets are amazing benevolence factories that way–and price signals make people seem like they’re planning together and make people smarter.

        The idiot down the street doesn’t know that there’s, say, a civil war breaking out in Nigeria, and so for the good of everyone else, he needs to cut back on his gasoline consumption so that people who need oil for more important reasons can have access to it. The idiot just sees the price of gasoline spike, and he decides to substitute something else for driving so much…

        But that’s not the kind of utilitarianism we’re talking about. We’re talking about the government forcing individuals to make sacrifices for the common good based on some quantitative criteria independent of our individual qualitative preferences that can’t be quantified outside of a market.

        Even something like crime isn’t really forcing individuals to make sacrifices–it’s protecting the right of individuals to make qualitative choices for themselves about their own rights and property.

  5. Of course, people being free to make choices for themselves–especially considering that it is impossible for elected representatives to make accurate qualitative judgements on other people’s behalf–is kinda what libertarianism is all about.

    If Bloomberg had focused more on the calorie content food companies offer and less on convenience stores for his mandates, I bet they would have had more success, and I’m sure that’s where the progressives are going next.

    They banned McDonalds from including toys with Happy Meals in San Francisco–unless the Happy Meal has a calorie count below a certain threshold. McDonalds sidestepped that by charging an extra ten cents for a toy with a Happy Meal purchase–and donating all the toy proceeds to Ronald McDonald House, a charity for crippled children. Suck on that, progressives!

    If the progressives go to regulate calorie counts for all of us in these restaurants, restaurants like McDonalds may have nowhere to hide–I don’t know what they’ll do. But I know what I’ll do! I’ll start a service like Uber or Airbnb–only for people making food in their homes! You want to buy your kid a Happy Meal with a toy? There’s an app for that. You may find there’s a homemaker making happy meals out of her house–right on the street where you live.

    Try to regulate that, progressives!

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    1. 72 counts as ‘a few’ hours a week, huh?

  7. Calorie count absent other macro-nutrient information has minimal value.

    1. Perhaps in general, but you can pretty much guess what the macro-nutrient content of a Big Mac is. ie, none.

      1. Then it’d be no-cal.

        1. Don’t bother. He’s not interested in your facts.

      2. Really? A Big Mac has no fat, no protein, and no carbs? Damn, it’s like eating celery!

        Why is it so filling, then, Stampede?

  8. What irritates me the most is that the whole watching what you eat thing really doesn’t work that well. If you are an over eater, then sure, you probably need to cut down, but the real trick is resistance training.

    More muscle means more calories being burned. Running a mile or a mile and a half twice a week is all your heart and lungs really need to stay in shape.

    Gain muscle to lose fat. And the workouts are easier and quicker to boot.

    1. Except exercise and muscle mass makes you hungrier and then you’re back to overeating. Running a mile when you’re overweight is also going to destroy your joints — bicycling or swimming is better exercise for someone who’s overwieght.

      Your body wants as much reserve energy (ie fat) as possible. There really isn’t any way around that.

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  10. The road to hell is paved with the unintended consequences of good intentions. America is building a whole system of superhighways to hell.

  11. What a bunch of whiny, “stop fat shaming” bullshit. Yeah, America’s problems are caused by people caring too much about what they eat. And anorexia is caused by the FDA and michelle obama.

    What we should really be focusing on is how big government promotes unhealthy eating choices with

    -subsidies for corn

    -subsidies for driving (free parking, highways)

    -zoning laws that render communities unwalkable by segregating land-uses

    -subsidies for outlying developments (flat developer fees, highways) that create jobs in areas that people have to drive to

    Calorie counts are dumb, but not because of self esteem. It’s better to get more calories from chicken or ham than to get less calories from coke or cookies.

    1. Every scientific study has shown that calories are calories regardless of where they come from.

      1. I believe that’s true in terms of weight, but weight isn’t the only, or necessarily the best, measure of health. An equivalent amount (in terms of calories) of lean chicken and table sugar is going to contain the same amount of energy and potentially cause you to gain the same amount of weight, but one is more likely to contribute to insulin resistance, for one thing.

        1. It’s Tulpa. Don’t try to penetrate his skull with complex thoughts. He’s a moron and doesn’t know it.

      2. That’s true, and it’s also the case that all reducing diets work. But that’s not the answer to the right Q, which is why people want to eat a little more than they need to. Nobody’s answered that one yet.

      3. Wrong. You fail.

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  14. Another angle would be that workplace vendors are going to be less likely to do fresh handmade packaging . For example Hermel Corp. Which builds lunch kits on site. If they have to provide anything new it will cost them big bucks. They will end up using processed products which are already labeled.

  15. The FDA could have discovered the miracle one-size-fits-all cure for weight loss and it still wouldn’t make a difference in the general public. If the individual doesn’t make health a priority, they’re not going to be healthy.

    1. But on the subject of what works, here are a few strategies that have worked for me (I’ve been at a svelte weight since I graduated from high school 12 years ago)

      1. Willpower is largely bullshit. Don’t have junk food in the house and don’t go to that part of the grocery store. If you buy a muffin every time you go to the coffee shop, make coffee at home. Etc. That works for any compulsive behavior, actually.

      2. Walking whenever you get the opportunity. Instead of the elevator, going to a store closer than 1 mile, etc.

      1. But #1 just defers the issue to another level. Is whether you buy junk food not an issue of will too?

        1. Less so because of all of the choices that must occur before the precise moment of temptation. It’s easier to withstand not going down the aisle because that specific action doesn’t directly result in putting chocolate in your mouth. It’s a matter of degree.

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  17. Blog entries are getting ridiculous. I know, you have to fill out space even when you run out of decent reasons to say it’s bad to make people do things they don’t want. So this puts a teeny, tiny negative on the value of people knowing the calorie counts in foods they buy. Whoopee.

  18. Recent studies have shown that this mandate actually has little or no impact on the ordering behaviors of the general population.

    Yeah, but I bet it has some impacts on the selling behaviors of vending machine companies, as in, raises the cost of operating chain restaurants and of selling food in vending machines so that fewer chain restaurants or vending machines are available to offer the proles their unhealthy food options.

  19. It’s like arguing against the draft by pointing out that some people look bad in uniform.

  20. People can’t wait for the government to help them choose what to eat. This is clearly democracy in action.

    Presently, healthy eating is impossible. How could anyone figure out what they’re eating? Where would we be without labels?

    Thank god the government is here to save us from food anarchy.

  21. It’s fine for Reason to disagree with government mandates on ideological grounds. Reason is libertarian, after all.

    But to support the position with this nonsense psychobabble? Sigh.

  22. Sometimes you jsut have to roll with the punches dude.

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  24. An excellent and well argued article. I had not considered Dr Singer’s point until now. Previously I found caloric labeling to be a stupid policy for raising food costs without accomplishing any meaningful behavior modification. Now I realize this policy is not merely ineffective: it is actively harmful.

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