The Important Thing We’re Not Talking About With Those Mandatory Calorie Counts

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Some restaurants already provide patrons with nutritional information, but starting May 7, all restaurants, fast food chains, and other locations that serve food will be required to list calorie counts right on the menu. As BuzzFeed News reported, the rule that was originally created under the Affordable Care Act in 2014. The new FDA regulation for mandatory calorie counts will be applied to any restaurant chain with at least twenty locations. However, it will also be required of movie theaters, grocery stores, vending machines, and other locations that serve food. Upon first glance, adding mandatory calorie counts to menus may seem like a good idea, but the initiative could very well be harmful for people with eating disorders or in recovery.

Calorie counting is sometimes utilized by people who are seeking to keep track of their caloric intake, or those who want to lose weight. But, for many people with eating disorders, calorie counting can become an obsession, and having to look at calorie counts every time they eat out can be detrimental to their recovery. “For people with eating disorders, often times they can get really fixated on calorie counting and the number of calories they are supposed to eat a day. But calories don't tell us much about the nutritional content of the food and what you actually need to fuel your body,” Dr. Stephanie Zerwas, PhD, the Clinical Director of the University of North Carolina’s UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, tells Bustle. “Calorie counting reinforces the idea that this nutrition is a math equation, and you just have to eat fewer than [a certain amount of calories].” She adds that this mindset can potentially trigger disordered eating behavior.

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According to statistics reported by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), at least thirty million Americans live with some type of eating disorder — most commonly anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder (BED), or orthorexia. Though eating disorders are oftentimes treated like a form of extreme dieting and are shrouded in misconceptions, they are recognized as serious mental health disorders in the DSM-5. Research shows that an every 62 minutes, one person dies as a result of an eating disorder, according to the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC). In fact, anorexia nervosa (an eating disorder that consists of food restriction and weight loss, among other symptoms) has the highest rate of mortality than any other mental illness.

Dr. Zerwas says that specifically for people who have to go through weight restoration as part of their treatment process, constantly having calorie counts out in the open on menus, and in the locations that fall under this regulation, can be triggering. “For someone in recovery for anorexia in particular, they may need to eat a lot of food in order to recover. But, if they’re counting up how many calories they actually need, that number would be incredibly scary to them. We often find that our patients need to eat double what they think they need to eat, and that can be really confusing if they are constantly exposed to how many calories they have to eat,” she says.

Moreover, when the FDA’s calorie count requirement was originally agreed upon in 2014, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) published a blog post about why this could be detrimental to people with eating disorders, explaining that, “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.”

Since calorie counts were officially made mandatory on menus as of Monday, people have already taken to social media to express how the new rule will affect them and their eating disorders. One Twitter user wrote, “As a person in [eating disorder] recovery, I actively avoid calorie info for my health. It should absolutely be available, but never thrown in your face. This [mandatory calorie count] is dangerous.” Further, another person tweeted, “I'm lowkey annoyed about the whole ‘putting calories on menus is good’ thing. Like, yes, I am all here for allowing people to make healthy choices, but as someone recovering from an eating disorder, seeing calorie counts is mad triggering.”

If you’re in eating disorder recovery and find mandatory calorie counts on menus triggering, there are ways to cope without avoiding going out to eat. Dr. Zerwas says that “having support from friends or family members is incredibly important,” suggesting that if you go out to eat with a trusted loved one, you could have them pick out your meal so you don’t have to look at the menu. Additionally, she adds that it’s important to understand not all calories are created equal. “We pretend like food is all the same thing, but it's really not,” Dr. Zerwas says. “A calorie is just a number, a small unit of energy. It doesn't tell you anything about how your body is going to use it."

If you’re a family member or friend of someone with an eating disorder, Dr. Zerwas has three simple tips when it comes to supporting them: First, she says to “empathize” with and “validate” your loved one’s anxiety, stressors, and fears, even if you don’t understand the eating disorder itself. Further, she says not to comment on their weight, how much they eat, or what they eat — especially at meals. Lastly, Dr. Zerwas suggests, “If someone is struggling during a meal, make sure to keep things really light. Talk about the weather, talk about other things. Don't make it all about the food.”

The Washington Post reported that studies have shown providing the nutritional information for food at restaurants can result in a reduction of someone’s intake by 30 to 50 calories a day, but for many people in recovery, this isn't necessarily a good thing. While people have every right to make informed decisions about their nutritional needs, mandatory calorie counts could be harmful for the millions of people in the U.S. who have an eating disorder or are in recovery.