Thanks to a new federal law, all chain restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops, vending machines, convenience stores, movie theaters, and pretty much any other place you can buy food will be required to list calorie counts on menus, and have additional nutritional information on hand for customers. The motivation for the law, which went into effect this week and applies to chains with 20 or more locations, was pretty simple: More Americans are eating meals away from home, so they should have access to nutrition information about the foods they're buying in order to make more informed choices about their diet and health.
"Studies suggest that access to clear and consistent information about calories in restaurant items can help reduce calorie intake, which over time could make a difference in obesity rates," Scott Gottlieb, MD, FDA commissioner, said in a statement.
On its face, this probably sounds like a great idea to young Americans, many of whom grew up in a diet culture filled with calorie counts and "good" and "bad" foods (thanks, low-fat '90s). But the thing is, the benefits of this new rule aren't so clear cut. The health and nutrition industry has long since moved past the idea that healthy eating involves merely slashing calories. So, why are we still relying on this reductive metric as the main arbiter of whether or not a food is "healthy"?
Labeling foods with calories is "the most straightforward way to assess how much energy you're getting from a food," says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. But one number doesn't necessarily tell you whether or not a food is nutritious — meaning: Quantity is one factor, but quality is just as, if not more, important. For example, a high-calorie food (like avocados) could contain important nutrients like fat, and a low-calorie food (like a small bag of baked potato chips) could contain very few nutrients. "The objective is not to eat as few calories as possible, it's to eat the amount that's appropriate for your body to energize and fuel you," says Diane Vizthum, RD, a registered dietitian at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The main issue with this law? For as much as people in America talk about (and count) calories, not many people know how to contextualize them or even know what they are. Technically, a calorie is a unit of energy that allows the cells in your body to function, explains Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating coach. "Calories give our body energy to do basic functions like keeping our heart beating or our lungs filling with air, as well as movements like walking or running," she says. "We all need a certain amount of calories just to stay alive." And more calories doesn't necessarily equal less healthy.
I fear that putting calories on menus will push people more towards external cues for eating [like calorie counts] which, like dieting, do not work in the long run.
Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating coach
In theory, since this law also requires restaurants to keep nutritional resources (like a booklet listing the amount of sodium, fiber, sugar, carbs, fat, and protein in menu items) on hand, there's a chance people will be curious enough to learn more about what's in the foods they eat (and that would be a great thing). For example, they might want to know how much fiber or protein is in their usual menu choices. But, more than likely, people will end up making snap judgements based on the total number of calories. After all, it's how many of us were taught to measure food.
For as long as diet culture has existed (basically since the 1950s), weight loss programs have been based on the idea that you need to reduce the number of calories you consume in order to lose weight. Nowadays, experts know that the way our bodies process food, as well as our eating behaviors, are more nuanced than that, according to Rumsey. "Telling people to watch their calories or eat less does not work in the long run," she says. Studies have shown that these types of calorie-slashing diets aren't effective for weight loss, and the majority of people who go on them will regain the weight they lost. (And, BTW, weight is not the only metric of health.)
On the flip side, a study published earlier this year showed that people who focused on eating more vegetables and whole foods, without following a calorie or portion limit, were able to lose a significant amount of weight. (But again, just like calories are an overly simplistic metric, so too is weight.) Not to mention, seeing calorie counts on menus could inadvertently trigger people with disordered eating tendencies. For people who struggle with anorexia-nervosa, for example, calorie-counting can easily become an unhealthy obsession — especially if the calories are right there, in their faces, at every restaurant. "I think [eating disorders] are something to take seriously," Dr. Schwartz says, "but in terms of looking at public health as a whole, I still think the benefits are more than the potential risks."
The objective is not to eat as few calories as possible, it's to eat the amount that's appropriate for your body to energize and fuel you.
Diane Vizthum, RD, a registered dietitian at Johns Hopkins Medicine
So, what's the upside to restaurants slapping calorie counts on everything you eat? Well, it's complicated. "At the end of the day, calories still matter," Dr. Schwartz says, because they determine the amount of energy a food will provide for your body. She believes that this new law will also push restaurants to reassess their recipes, so that there are healthier options available. But studies have shown that public health efforts aimed at preventing or reducing obesity — like putting calorie counts on menus — tend to increase weight stigma, which makes people less likely to follow the guidelines, and more likely to avoid doctors overall, according to Rumsey.
To be fair, Rumsey says that "transparency about what's in our food isn't a bad thing." However, putting calorie information front and center on menus and messaging that this is the most important factor to consider could have negative consequences. "I fear that putting calories on menus will push people more towards external cues for eating [like calorie counts] which, like dieting, do not work in the long run," Rumsey says. In a perfect world, people would focus on internal signals like hunger, fullness, and satisfaction — aka intuitive eating — to know what and how much to eat, rather than focusing on external factors that lead to dissatisfaction and yo-yo dieting (which, for the record, is bad for your physical and mental health and can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease).
Time will tell just how helpful these new changes are. Perhaps people will educate themselves about balanced diets, and use this newly available nutrition information as a helpful guide to intuitive eating. Or maybe this will go the way of previous diet fads and we'll roll our eyes about the fact that menus used to have calorie counts. The important thing to remember is that, ultimately, calories shouldn't be the only factor in your decision-making process when you go out to eat — in case you've forgotten, we also eat food because it tastes good. If you understand the basics of nutrition and you listen to your body, food doesn't have to be – and shouldn’t be – a numbers game.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.