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How Calorie Displays Trigger Eating Disorders

Calorie counts on menus are often viewed as helpful. But women in recovery from anorexia tell The Fix they see it very differently.

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By Nina Puro

12/10/12

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Could calorie counts on menus be doing more harm than good? Such displays became mandatory on all chain-restaurant menus in New York City in 2008; other cities, like Seattle, have followed suit. Although the tool is often considered helpful in the nationwide fight against obesity, for women and men with eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia or EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), calorie counts can impede the crucial recovery process of re-learning to eat less rigidly. And this process includes learning to see calories as units of energy that are vital for survival, rather than something threatening. Michelle Brill, a registered dietitian in the NYC area, tells The Fix: “In a calorie-obsessed nation, [calorie displays on menus] can contribute to restrictive and disordered eating patterns.” It’s worth noting that the only information displayed is calorie quantities—facts on protein or essential nutrients remain invisible. For example, a donut at Dunkin' Donuts has fewer calories than a whole-wheat bagel—but the bagel provides fiber and contains less saturated fat.

The process of regaining autonomy over your food choices is a vital part of recovery from eating disorders, and calorie counts can threaten this process. Andrea, 27, a recovering anorexic from Queens, tells us that these displays inhibit her ability to choose freely from menu options. “I had lunch with a friend at a Thai place in Greenpoint where the calories were next to each menu option," she says. "On one hand, it was comforting, but on the other hand I felt like someone else was choosing my meal for me. Because obviously, I was going to pick the thing on the menu with the lowest number of calories.” Julie, a 29-year-old from Los Angeles who is also in recovery from anorexia, tells The Fix that “In recovery, one must regain a connection with internal hunger and fullness cues and learn to trust the body's wisdom: data about calories and fat grams interrupts this process and adds additional fear and anxiety.” She does acknowledge, however, that there is some value to having this information available. “Sufferers can use the information to ensure they’re eating enough…but the cultural dialogue of calories emphasizing weight loss perpetuates eating disorders.” Studies on the impact of calorie-display legislation range from inconclusive to showing that it has no impact on people’s ordering choices.

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