There's a piece in the Times today that I found kind of depressing: apparently calorie-counting, the hallmark of 80s weight loss, is back with a vengeance. Inspired by some states' initiatives to force restaurants to post calorie count of all their food, the pernicious practice has reentered the cultural consciousness. Just as we're recovering from the long national Atkins nightmare, we get this? I know Americans need to slim down but does this kind of thing even work for people fighting obesity? And could there be anything less healthy for the many people already obsessed with their weight? My gut (stuffed with 430 calories' worth of oatmeal) says no.“'More and more, people are looking at calories in, and calories out,'” one shrink tells The Times. Here in New York, we kind of have no choice but to look at them: chains have to post the calorie content of each item in plain sight. Last month, California became the first to require the calorie counts statewide, while variations on the mandate are sweeping the nation; two proposals currently before congress would make posting calorie content a nationwide law. At customers' request, Starbucks has added "nutritional guardrails" for each item. Coke and M&Ms will soon list calorie content on the wrappers.
"Public health officials acknowledge that people rarely change their eating habits overnight, and that there is a lot more to good nutrition than simply counting calories. Still, they are trying to make sure consumers stay calorie conscious. Just to hammer the point home, the New York City health department earlier this month put signs inside subway cars pointing out that most people need only about 2,000 calories a day."
Well, does it work? Hard to say. Apparently, the New Yorkers polled were surprised by the calorie content of their favorite treats, and obviously some elementary notion of nutrition is not a bad thing. Then too, apparently the practice has led some places, like Starbucks, to reduce their portion sizes — never a bad thing. Yes, people obviously need to lose weight; but even in this piece The Times refers to this drastic measure as a "Hail Mary" by desperate public health officials trying to halt the spread of diabetes and obesity. While I certainly believe hearts are firmly planted in the right place here, my concern is that such policies could do as much harm as good. The article quotes a young woman who works at Chipotle (which under NYC law discloses calories): "The customers talking calories, she said, are mostly women, and mostly slimmer older women. Men, especially the younger ones, just ask for everything, and often ask her to double the portions." Look, I'm not surprised some people gravitate towards calorie-counting, and even that they've demanded places like Starbucks do the math for them. Formulas and numbers comfort people, but they are also an easy way to develop compulsive attitudes towards food. The times in my life when I counted calories were not my happiest, nor my healthiest: I may have eaten fewer calories, but I also smoked more and lost a lot of the pleasure in good food that I think keeps me healthy now. Anxiety and guilt are as likely to be the product of such paternalistic practices as are thoughtful choices. (I should say that my boyfriend, thin and cheap, was delighted to see how many calories a Dunkin' Donuts bagel and cream cheese had: "so much more energy for my money!") You shouldn't be not eating Starbucks baked goods because they're calorie-laden; rather, you shouldn't do it because the banana bread has the texture of sawdust and the glazed donut tastes like Play-doh smells. I'm skeptical of the canonization of French women, but I do think this sort of nonsense would be greeted with heavy skepticism in any reasonable Parisian boulangerie, if only because it so officiously interferes with the sacrosanct pleasures of eating. In fact, lately I avoid these places not out of guilt but because the calorie count makes me anxious and I start to get that unhealthy twinge of "numbers over nutrition" thinking. There is a wonderful Iris Murdoch quote: "Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger." Amen. Calories Do Count [New York Times]