The FDA's New Requirement is Sending the Wrong Message about Calories and Here's Why

The FDA’s New Requirement is Sending the Wrong Message about Calories and Here’s Why


In the name of health, the FDA is requiring that restaurants with at least 20 business locations label the calorie information on menus and menu boards. According to the FDA, about 1/3 of the calories Americans consume are eaten away from home, and consumers need to see the calorie information in order to make more informed decisions.

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However, research tells us calories aren’t everything. Here’s the evidence:

The USDA’s systematic review says adding calorie counts to menus in order to make better choices is limited in effect.   

Bottom line: We aren’t sure how consumers will react to calories on a menu, so the U.S. population will be the guinea pig.

If calorie counting were the best way to lose weight, the FDA allows a 20 percent error on product labeling. Which means that the product can contain 20 percent more calories than it states on the label.

Bottom line: A 500 calorie dinner can actually contain 600 calories, legally, which means, if you rely on labels, you may not actually be eating less calories.

Yes, a balanced energy equation means that you are likely at a healthy weight. However, that does not mean eating less calories will make you weigh less. When you eat less calories (especially when you eat a generic low-calorie diet not specific to your needs), that makes you hungrier. Which means that you will likely give up on the diet, because no one likes to be hungry. In fact, in one study, a prescribed low-calorie diet is shown to be inversely associated with adherence to a diet plan.

Bottom line: The more calorie restriction, the less likely you are to stick to the plan.

Most importantly, there is more to the scientific equation than the measure of energy. It’s the type of energy, or how the energy is used in the body. In a study related to diabetes, a 150 calorie increase was not significant to diabetes prevalence, but a 150 calorie increase of sugar did increase the prevalence of diabetes.

Eating foods that spike insulin levels (like processed carbs), allows sugar to be absorbed into the bloodstream quicker, therefore making you less full faster. That’s just the tip of the iceberg because there are at least 14 more digestive system hormones that are turned on or off based on the type of food.

Bottom line: There’s more to nutrition science than a calorie.

Quantitative data rules in the United States (Think BMI, Fitbits, scales). Defining health by a number may seem helpful (even though mostly inaccurate). Our bodies have their own signals that are more effective than any number can tell us.

Bottom line: Listen to your body instead of a number.

In the 1950s, when the interstate system was built, fast cars became cool, and that ideology transcended in culture and lifestyle, which (among other changes in our culture) led to fast food. Fast food restaurants are in business for your convenience, not your health.

Although fast food restaurants are moving toward a fast-casual setting, which may lead to healthier options, let’s be real, fast food restaurants are the target in the calorie labeling scheme. Because when I say fast food, I mean energy dense low-quality food, as defined by the American Institute for Cancer Research. No fast food isn’t the absolute demise of our health, but it should be eaten sparingly.

Bottom line: The overconsumption of fast food is the enemy, not calories.

An economic study showed that consumers will lose $5.27 billion in eating pleasure over the next 20 years when calorie labeling is in effect. This study is odd because it puts a dollar amount on pleasure; however, common sense tells me that the calorie labeling will be a killjoy for anyone who is health conscious. The original intentions of restaurant eating include experience and leisure. If I go out with a friend to eat dessert, and I am eating a fast food “sparingly,” I don’t want to think about my health. Because constantly thinking about “health” wears me out, and I end up eating more in spite of it.  

Bottom line: You deserve to enjoy your food, not obsess over health 24/7.    

What should you do about it?

Eat at home a majority of the time. I know you are busy, but being chronically busy puts us at risk for cardiovascular disease, fatigue, depression, chronic infections and diabetes to name a few. Give yourself time to make dinner, because it’s the best way to make informed decisions. Besides, the more practice you put in, the better your meals will taste and the faster you will be at making them.

Focus on more, not less. Dr. Kevin Huggins, associate professor at Auburn University, says, “We want to get people away from obsessing over food, calories, [and] focusing on healthy eating. Sending a positive message instead of a negative one, and stressing to eat more vegetables. When you eat more vegetables, you eat more fiber, you eat less calories.” No counting required.

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Take back the dining experience. Since calorie labeling will only be required at restaurants with 20 or more locations, hit up your favorite local spots. Go with a work friend to make it an enjoyable experience instead of rushing through your meal.

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