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How the FDA’s New Menu Requirement Can Harm Those Struggling with Eating Disorders

Anna Kilar

As many of you already know, and have seen when you walk into either a Starbucks, McDonalds, Applebee’s or even Target’s café, right there next to a food item on the menu is its calorie information. On November 25, 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration finalized two rules requiring that calorie information be listed on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants and vending machines with 20 or more locations. 

Their reasoning behind this: “To provide consumers with more nutritional information about the foods they eat outside of the home.” Now, I do see the benefits of providing calorie information for those who plan meals because of chronic illnesses, diabetes or other reasons. But unfortunately, the population of those affected by an eating disorder is not small, and we should not be ignored. 

Coming from someone who struggled with an eating disorder, I’m never pleased about seeing the calorie information when I walk into a restaurant or café. Before the onset of my eating disorder, I hardly ever counted calories or weighed myself, but during my eating disorder, it was something I was overly-preoccupied and obsessed with. When I went into treatment, my team and I worked hard to move away from counting calories, numbers and watching the scale. During recovery, it was important to me to learn how to find myself again, and part of that meant learning how to live a life without these preoccupations.  

These rules for restaurants and cafes are not new, but by December 1, 2016, all restaurants and cafes that fall under the regulations must comply. So, for all of the restaurants that have been holding out until the last minute, come the holidays and New Year, we may be seeing a lot more calorie information presented to us. While browsing through related articles, I came across a piece by Pamela Singer, in which she stands up for those with eating disorders and the harms related to menus including caloric information. In her article, “The Government’s Mandatory Calorie Counts May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” the clinical psychologist describes, “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.” Singer continues her article by saying some affected by an eating disorder feel the calorie information tends to reinforce the idea that avoiding the food is noble and strong, whereas others may feel that avoiding the foods they truly want results in shame. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Recovering from an eating disorder involves an emphasis on eating intuitively and listening to your body, and now with calorie information screaming in your face, it presents the opportunity to base food intake off of a piece of data. We all have different nutritional needs, and the presentation of calories on menus is training us to turn a blind eye to the individuality of every body. 

Being in a place of full recovery, I am now able to completely ignore the calorie information I am presented with at restaurants and cafes, and instead order what I know my body wants and needs. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone, and just because it can be ignored, doesn’t mean it’s easy. It took me a long time to get to the point of not allowing menu calorie information to affect my meal-choosing decisions, and I almost wonder if constantly seeing caloric information made it harder to let go of the obsessive thoughts. 

Singer ends her article on a powerful note, one that the FDA shouldn’t take lightly: “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.”

Anna Kilar is a senior at Loyola University Chicago studying health systems management. 

Image credit: Getty

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