I was a little concerned when restaurants started to post the calorie content of menu items. I have to admit, I am a bit torn between the importance of educating people about nutrition and my mission to prevent disordered eating and promote a healthy relationship to food. My friends and family often argue with me when I say “listen to your body”. My husband says “my body told me to eat the whole thing!”.
What my husband is referring to is most likely the “trigger” that yummy food is to most of us (and not true hunger, something not very easy to tune in to for many). We are all different in the way we respond to food and eating, and not everyone is able to “listen to your body” because they have a unique eating, weight, dieting, genetic history that no one can understand except themselves. So what does counting calories have to do with anything? Why would I have any concerns with labeling calories on menu items? Should you count calories to have a healthy weight?
My answer: The Top 5 Reasons you should not count calories:
1. It is hard enough to work on the task of paying attention to your hunger and fullness, so when you attach a number to a meal or snack, you are almost guaranteed to become “disconnected” to your true body signals. Imagine you have determined you need a certain amount of calories for the day, and by evening you feel full after your last meal and do not want that pm snack you are supposed to have. Should you force yourself to eat it? or what if the opposite happens and after your dinner with the specified calories, you are still hungry? Do you forbid yourself a snack and think about food all night long? What if you made a mistake, which leads me to reason number 2.
2. You will not be accurate! The calories posted on many packages and menus may not be accurate! Check out this interesting video about a small experiment in NYC regarding this topic. WARNING: this video only looked at a few foods and most had more calories than stated on the package or menu. The reverse is also likely, where menu items have less than stated. The message is, nobody is held responsible for accuracy! If you are obsessive already about eating and calories, this video may be triggering and you should skip it.
3. It encourages obsessive thinking about food which can backfire. When you use “cognitive restraint” such as counting calories, you become MORE focused on food, not less. Research shows that people who are overly restrictive tend to be more likely to binge eat. Even worse, this behavior is more likely to lead to disordered eating patterns.
4. Counting Calories does not translate into healthy eating. As I said earlier, although I believe in “listening to your body” I also believe it is good to want to be healthy. That may mean learning about nutrition, healthy cooking, what your body needs to feel good, etc. If you only look at calories, you are missing the boat.
5. Counting Calories is not fun and really interferes with your social life! Not only is it harder to go out to eat once in awhile with friends, even family celebrations become a chore instead of something that should be enjoyed as one of the most wonderful parts of life. Not only that, people who are restrained eaters (such as calorie counters) tend to be more depressed.
So the bottom line is: it is ok to educate yourself about nutrition, but calorie counting is not a great thing. You can’t avoid seeing the calorie count on the menus, and if you get indigestion every time you get that certain giant burger, well, seeing the calories may help you understand why….but your tummy will tell you that, you really didn’t need to know the number after all : )