It begins like the setup to an old joke: A person with an eating disorder walks into a restaurant. Or, instead, an average person with a shoddy knowledge of nutrition. Or a card-carrying member of diet culture, out to count macros or tally points or rid the world of white bread. Their eyes scan the menu, looking not for a satisfying meal but for the item with the least number of calories. Luckily for them, those numbers are printed next to every item on the menu.
Considered in its best light, calorie labeling is intended to guide consumers to choose “healthier” — read: lower calorie — foods. But studies have shown that consumers generally do not choose those low-calorie foods, nor do their choices translate to healthier populations. In fact, most people do not even notice the labeling, and even fewer use it to “make informed choices,” which translates to “choosing food based on its perceived health benefits instead of its level of satisfaction.”
For people who do pay attention to the calorie labels, the only effect on their health is anxiety caused by the pressure to choose a meal they do not actually want. Not to beat a dead horse here, but eating a satisfying meal surrounded by fear-mongering “health” information is already hard enough for the average consumer. For those with disordered eating on both ends of the spectrum, including those who diet, calorie labels can be a way to justify restriction or bingeing. Consider the labeling on pints of Halo Top ice cream, if that watery mess can even be called ice cream. They encourage people to eat the entire pint, because it contains “only 240 calories!” Not sure about you, but the last time I ate a pint of ice cream in one sitting, I wasn’t feeling so good afterward. On the restrictive end of things, it’s a no brainer to guess how seeing the calorie content on your favorite pastry at Panera could cause you to skip lunch altogether. Mine are bear claws, in case anyone is feeling generous.
Equating calories to nutrition is like comparing apples to oranges. Calories, or kilocalories, are a measure of the energy content of food. The FDA allows a margin of error of 20% in either direction, meaning that tasteless protein bar touting “only 200 calories” could have up to 240 or as few as 160 calories — neither of which is enough to constitute a meal, by the way. Calorie information alone does not reveal the source of that energy, nor does it tell you which vitamins and minerals the food contains. Most consumers do not consider these important caveats when using these labels in choosing food because we have been taught to see calories as the essential measure of health.
Yet, when I went to do research for this article, I found that, far from condemning these labels as pointless and damaging, nutritionists and laypeople alike argued they were not getting enough information. Consumers, they claimed, should be given clearer, more detailed nutrition facts on every item. While that might seem like a great idea — Give power to the people! — we do not need to know the fat content of a box of mac ‘n cheese in order to make a decision on whether to eat it. We should not be guilted into ignoring our hunger cues and cravings by numbers that mean much less than we think. Nutrition is not an exact science. Feeding our bodies should not be a desperate juggling act of consuming precise quantities of macronutrients while never reaching for foods that we enjoy. We should not feel guilty for ignoring calorie labels in defense of our own natural regulatory mechanisms. Instead of condemning certain foods based on calories, we should educate people on eating intuitively and enjoying a diversity of foods. There is no reason that we, as consumers, ever need to know the number of calories in our food. This information is simply not necessary and can be damaging.
And in case you needed a reminder, the foods we eat do not determine our worth as human begins. Eating foods because they have fewer calories does not make you morally superior — it makes you hungry. This is not to say that I advocate a boycott on low calorie foods across the board. I personally love broccoli, which is not calorie-dense. I choose to eat broccoli when I want it, not because of its caloric content. But when I was struggling with my eating disorder, I would absolutely walk into a restaurant and order the measeliest item on their menu so I could slide under my calorie limit for the day and don my Ate The Least Stuff Today crown. Trust me, it was a miserable existence. Calorie labeling contributes to this disordered mindset around food for all people, and it needs to go the way of the dodo. I want to know how my food will taste and make me feel, not how much water it can heat up!