The policy is fatphobic
Fatphobia is defined as a fear and hatred of fat people, which leads to weight stigma, discrimination, and negative stereotypes related to people living in larger bodies.
Anti-obesity campaigns, such as calorie counting menus, may seem to be well-intentioned on the surface. But they are actually misguided and misinformed, promoting fear-mongering over education and inclusion. And while the government and public alike may consider “obesity” to be an epidemic, the true epidemic is fatphobia.
In fact, some of the health risks associated with “obesity” could actually be caused by fatphobia and weight stigma, not by a person’s weight. One study found that weight bias and discrimination can increase a person’s risk of: (3)
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
- Stomach ulcers
The reality is, adding caloric information to restaurant menus sends the message that fat people—a term many people living in larger bodies have reclaimed as a neutral descriptor, like tall or short, without a negative, stigmatizing connotation—ought to be choosing low-calorie meals when they go out to eat, a message that can harm a person’s mental and emotional well-being, as well as lead to profound shame.
People are healthy at diverse weights and sizes
Anti-obesity campaigns like the menu labeling requirement claim they intend to improve people’s health, but weight is not an indicator of a person’s health status. Something as complex and as multifaceted as health cannot be reduced to a simple measurement of weight or size. And despite what the anti-obesity campaigns may want you to think, people of all weights, shapes, and sizes can be physically and mentally healthy.
Countless studies back this up. Here’s what the research says: (4,5,6,7,8)
- Being “overweight” is often associated with a reduced mortality rate
- Nearly half of all U.S. adults who are overweight are healthy (as indicated by cholesterol, triglyceride, blood pressure, and glucose levels–which are actual indicators of metabolic health)
- 20 million U.S. adults who are considered “obese” are healthy
- Black women tend to be healthier at higher weights and larger waist circumferences than white women
- Older African-American men and women have lower amounts of fat around their organs (a risk factor for many health conditions) than their Hispanic and white peers
Additionally, the location of fat is a more accurate indicator of health than the amount of fat a person has—fat in the mid-section is a risk factor for heart disease, even among people of average weight. (9)
Calories are not an indicator of nutrition
Putting calories on restaurant menus equates health with caloric consumption. This is a dangerous practice, as many people already falsely conflate thinness with health. Consuming a high number of calories doesn’t make a person unhealthy. And restricting calories certainly isn’t a healthy choice, contrary to what many messages our culture and even healthcare providers are communicating to us.
There are plenty of calorie-dense foods that provide you with much-needed nutrients and vitamins, without which your body does not function optimally and could result in harmful physical and mental health complications. They include:
- Red meat
- Chicken with the skin
- Salmon and other oily fish
- Full-fat yogurt
- Brown rice
- Whole grain bread and pasta
- Nuts and nut butters
Food is meant to be enjoyed
Eating food is meant to be a pleasurable experience, not only because we find the food delicious, but also because mealtimes are an opportunity for friends and family to come together and socialize and bond. And this is never more true than going to restaurants and cafes, which provide a desirable atmosphere for celebrations, date nights, family gatherings, and friend get-togethers.
Adding calorie information to menus takes the focus away from the joy and pleasure of food and prioritizes the number of calories patrons are consuming. People may stray away from ordering food based on flavor, curiosity, ingredients, nutrition, or cooking craft.
Calorie counting menus trigger those in eating disorder recovery
Calorie counting is commonly found in people with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia nervosa. People struggling with eating disorders have fraught relationships with food and movement, struggling with an intense preoccupation with weight, appearance, food, and behaviors related to consumption.
During eating disorder treatment, people who struggle with calorie counting and caloric restriction must unlearn these maladaptive behaviors to heal their relationship with food and learn how to eat intuitively. With help from their treatment team, they put in the necessary work to move away from calorie counting and label checking.
As such, it’s easy to see how triggering menu labeling can be for those in eating disorder recovery. They’ve worked so hard to shift the focus from numbers to nutrition and pleasure, only to have the numbers forced upon them. It may be difficult for those in recovery to fight the urge to return to calorie counting, as well as other monitoring behaviors. Listing the caloric information for food and drinks also emphasizes calories over vital nutritional information people need to make truly informed decisions about their food—thus triggering a person in recovery to focus on calories consumed as opposed to mindful, intuitive eating.
Counting calories can lead to disordered eating in vulnerable individuals
Aside from triggering people in recovery, listing calories on menus can also trigger disordered eating behaviors, such as compulsive calorie counting, label checking, skipping meals, and restricting calories and food groups, as well as full-blown eating disorders in vulnerable individuals. Research indicates that about 35% of people who diet—which often involves counting or tracking calories—develop disordered eating behaviors and attitudes, while 15% progress to an eating disorder. (10)
People who may be at an increased risk of eating disorders include those who:
- Have a family history of eating disorders or mental health conditions
- Have a history of dieting
- Have body image dissatisfaction
- Have perfectionism
- Have an anxiety disorder
- Have a history of trauma
Since menus with calorie information encourage people to choose their food based on calories, this harmful policy could potentially cause countless people to have unhealthy relationships with their bodies and food.
Tips for eating at restaurants that use calorie labeling
If you are in eating disorder recovery, the notion of going out to eat and being subjected to calorie counts can be intimidating and even frightening. But there are some things you can do to still enjoy your time out with loved ones. One of the best ways to prevent anxiety is to prepare and plan for the upcoming event. Everyone’s preparation may look different, but examples of things you can do to plan include knowing:
- Where the restaurant is and how you’ll get there
- Who you will be going out to eat with
- What food will be offered
If you are in eating disorder recovery and have a solid support system, you can reach out to someone you trust to process your anxieties with. This could be a friend, someone you met in a support group, or your therapist.
You can also look at the menu ahead of time online and write down a few options of meals you’d like to order, regardless of calories. Choose your food based on what you find enjoyable—nothing else. Selecting your meal ahead of time can alleviate anxiety when it’s time to order at the restaurant. If the menu isn’t available online, plan generally, such as wanting to enjoy a seafood pasta dish if it’s an Italian restaurant.
It’s also important to set a time limit for how long you are allowed to view the menu. This can help prevent you from obsessing over all of the different options and calories associated with them.
Another helpful tip may involve ordering the same thing as a loved one who will be at the restaurant with you. You can plan this ahead of time with them while explaining to them your thought process behind it. Communicating your fears and anxieties to those you’ll be eating with can also help prepare you for the meal, especially if they are people close to you whom you trust. And if you’ll be going to eat with people you aren’t as close with, such as work colleagues, you may still want to talk about your feelings with a friend or family member beforehand.
Remember, if you begin to feel stressed or upset at the restaurant, don’t blame yourself for your feelings. Your feelings are valid, and you aren’t the only person experiencing them. Try to use your coping skills, such as deep breathing, and even discuss your feelings as they arise. Noting them without judgment can help you to manage them without shaming yourself.