With the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the government decided to implement mandatory calorie listings for large restaurant chains and grocery stores. Any establishment with 20 or more locations was included, along with other sites that serve “restaurant type food.” Grocery store pre-prepared sections, for example, fell beneath this umbrella. (As do, tragically, Whole Foods’s new mac and cheese bars.)
Since the law was passed, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been more than a little behind in enforcing these regulations. While some restaurants and chains have been listing their calories, others have held back.
Pizza delivery companies, for example, approached the FDA with concerns that the toppings would complicate calorie information. After much deliberation, the FDA informed them that companies could list a base amount of calories for pizza and then post calories next to the toppings.
The next attempt at stalling enforcement came from grocery chains with self-serve buffet stations. The FDA resolved this confusion by advising they post calorie information beside each buffet station or post one large display listing all the options available.
Posting calorie information is definitely not impossible, however. You might have noticed these tallies popping up here and there - labeled beside the sweet potatoes at Whole Foods’ hot bar, you’ll see a large, black “140.” Menu boards at fast-casual restaurants list the calorie counts of their options in large print, as if they were as essential to read as the item’s cost.
It’s like listing the cost to your health, supporters of the move might explain. But are calories really such an overwhelming health problem?
Anti-obesity associations have been pushing for the FDA to enforce calorie count listings for years. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Consumers League have even gone so far as to sue the government over the latest delay. The rule was originally set to go into full effect by 2015. It was then delayed to 2017. And now that 2017 is over, people are wondering: Where are the calorie counts?
During a statement made in August, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb assured the public that there would be no further delay in the rule’s enforcement.
“Information about the foods we get in restaurants and in take-out meals isn’t consistently available,” Gottlieb said. “Often we’re left without good insight into how many calories we’re consuming away from our homes or what type of nutrition we may receive.”
Nutrition information other than calorie counts, such as fiber, vitamins and minerals, protein, healthy fats, and the other thousands of qualities that make food healthy or not have not been advocated for display. And like any good nutritionist will tell you - calories aren’t everything. A 90-calorie processed snack bar, for example, is likely a less healthy choice than a 200-calorie trail mix of nuts and fruit. Many high-calorie foods, such as salmon, olive oil, peanut butter, coconut milk, etc., are packed with nutrients; it would be foolhardy to cut these from your diet for fear of calories.
Studies have shown that being forced to display calorie information results in restaurants offering lower-calorie options. But according to many experts, the calories aren’t the problem. They don’t adequately report the nutritional value of the food. Feeling pressure to reduce the calorie counts of options could influence restaurants to use fewer nutrient-dense natural ingredients and more high-sugar, processed ingredients instead - simply because they’re lower-calorie.
McDonald’s, for instance, has no qualms about listing their calories on their website. Nearly all of their menu options are below 500 calories - meaning they would end up on some restaurants’ “light” menus by today’s forgiving standards. But does that make McDonald’s meals a healthier choice than a 600-calorie, gourmet dinner of grains and fish with a side of vegetables? Absolutely not.
Additionally, posting calorie information could be harmful to the mental and physical health of consumers who are trying to diet - or any consumers exposed to diet culture.
Registered dietitian Michelle Brill told The Fix, “In a calorie-obsessed nation, [calorie displays on menus] can contribute to restrictive and disordered eating patterns.”
Psychotherapist Diane Barth wrote in Psychology Today, “Several of my clients who struggle with eating issues say that having the calorie count doesn’t do a thing for them - except, in some cases, to make them feel more ashamed of what they eat.”
As if these concerns weren’t enough, some studies show that calorie counts don’t even work to do what obesity-fearing activists want them to - influence consumers to make low-calorie choices. So the benefit - even if low-calorie eating is assumed to be a desirable goal - is null.
Regardless, the FDA will be soon be implementing the planned changes. In 2018, the FDA promises the counts will be listed.
If you are struggling with disordered eating, society-wide weight stigma, or frequent attempts to diet, we warn you to prepare yourself for the looming discomfort at some of your favorite restaurants next year.