I came across this New York Times article yesterday about requiring restaurants to post the calorie counts for all of their menu offerings. This article brought up a lot of ambivalent feelings in me. Back in my dieting days, I was very much for this idea. It drove me crazy that I didn’t know how many calories and fat grams were in what I wanted to order at a restaurant. Then I learned about intuitive eating, and I stopped caring about how many calories food had. I haven’t given this issue any thought since I quit dieting.
On a personal level, I do not want to be forced to read the calorie count for everything on a menu every time I go to a restaurant. I’m pretty well established in this whole non-dieting thing, but I think it would be hard for me to order exactly what I wanted if the calorie count was staring me in the face. What if the thing I wanted had 1200 calories in it? If I didn’t know that, I would order it without giving it much thought, but I would certainly be satisfied after eating just part of it. A couple of weeks ago, I ordered pasta with grilled vegetables in a cream sauce. I’m sure there was an outrageous amount of calories in it, and I’m really glad that I didn’t have to deal with that knowledge. Instead, I ordered it and enjoyed it immensely. By the time I had eaten to satisfaction, it looked like I had barely made a dent in it. I took it home and got three more meals out of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. I know that if the calories and fat had been listed next to the entrée, I would not have been able to enjoy it without feeling at least a little bad about it. I’m really glad that restaurant doesn’t post that information.
I honestly believe that this information won’t help anyone. Knowing the calories and fat grams will bring people into diet thinking. This diet mentality is one of the main contributors to obesity. As Geneen Roth says, every diet brings on an equal and opposite binge. So what would happen if people had this information? I can see it playing out in a couple of ways.
Scenario 1: Mary joined Weight Watchers three weeks ago. She has lost count of how many times she has joined, but she knows that this time she will stick with it and finally make lifetime. She goes to one of her favorite restaurants. Mary loves their grilled vegetable tostada. She looked up the ingredients beforehand, and figured that it must be about 12 points. That’s a lot for one meal, but she can afford to spend the points because she has been really good lately. She gets to the restaurant, looks at the menu and notices that the restaurant has added the calorie and fat information for all of their items. At first she is excited, but then she sees that her tostada has a whopping 1600 calories and 28 grams of fat. That’s a lot more than 12 points! She doesn’t know what to do. She really wants that tostada. She has been looking forward to it all week. She looks over the menu and can’t find anything else she wants, so she decides to just order the dang tostada. She eats the whole thing because she already screwed up anyway. She goes home feeling awful because she is so overly full. Over the next week she gorges herself on sweets and fried foods. She feels like a failure. Then one morning she wakes up resolved to get back on the wagon, and the whole cycle starts over again.
Scenario 2: (Let’s see what would have happened if Mary decided not to order the tostada.) She scours the menu for something that she could order that would be on plan, and finally settles on a green salad with a little grilled salmon on top. She isn’t a huge fan of salmon and doesn't feel like salad, but it is the best choice. She eats it, but feels very unsatisfied at the end of the meal. Once she gets home, she really wants to eat even though she isn’t hungry anymore. She just can’t stop herself and proceeds to binge on chocolate and bon bons. Mary goes to bed feeling horribly guilty. (Refer to scenario one to see how the rest of her week turns out.)
That pretty much sums up why I think posting this information on menus is a bad idea. I don’t believe that it will make people slimmer or healthier. Instead, I fear that this information with perpetuate the diet cycle and possibly contribute to an increase in obesity.
But people want this, and that should mean something. According to one study sited in the article, 83% of the adults interviewed were in favor of putting calorie counts on menus. I have to admit that it wouldn’t be fair to ignore that, so I propose a compromise. Let’s not put calories and fat grams on menus. Instead, let’s put the following: “Nutritional information available upon request.” Every restaurant would be required to have nutritional information for all of their entrees in an easy to read, accessible format. That way the calorie counts and fat grams would be available to anyone who wanted it, but it wouldn’t be forced upon people who didn’t want to see it.