How I Use Calories on the Menu

Yesterday, at a rest stop in New Jersey, standing in the combined line for Cinnabon, Popeyes and others, waiting to pay for the blueberry-granola-and (un)real yogurt that I always get, I spied a “MiniBon” roll and mentioned that, calorie-wise, it was better than the classic. (The Cinnabon Classic has 880 calories, while the Minibon has 350 calories per roll.)  My daughter and the woman standing ahead of me, both in their 20s and of slim/normal weight, admitted they had no idea of the number of calories they need. Neither one seemed the worse for the lack of information, but I gave them a tiny lesson on calories (and told them never to “diet.”)

Later that night, I read this on the Intuitive Eaters Professionals Group on Linked-In:
“The other day I went to a restaurant for lunch with friends and was surprised to see calorie counts next to each menu item. My friends, both fairly health conscious “normal” eaters, didn’t seem to mind, but did remark on the counts. I was bothered because I found that the counts drew me away from eating intuitively and back to my days, half a lifetime ago, of dieting. I had to force myself not to look at them and then was okay. My question is: Are menu item calorie counts helpful or not? Might they be useful for different populations, i.e., okay for “normal” eaters who want to eat more nutritiously but not so much for anyone who leans toward dis-regulated eating?”

Calories on the Menu

Expect to see calories on the menu in restaurants with 20 or more outlets as part of the Affordable Care Act upheld by the Supreme Court last week. Restaurants and movie theaters must post calorie information on menus, menu boards, and drive through displays, and provide written information about total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber, and protein upon request.

For people like my daughter and the woman in line, the information will be meaningless, but for others, it may be extremely informative or downright disconcerting. As a longtime registered dietitian, intuitive eating practitioner, and former dieter over thirty years ago, I think a “calorie information free menu” should be available to anyone upon request, no questions asked. (Heaven forbid the Affordable Care Act returns to the Supreme Court for alleged “actual harm” coming from calories on the menu!) Anyway, I live in New York City where calories have been on the menu since 2008. Real-world studies show that, as a public health intervention, it has only a modest reduction or no effect in the calories purchased by customers. In time, the issue could be a moot point.

For what it’s worth, this is what I told my daughter and the woman in line about how I approach calories on the menu:

  • Women need about 2,000 calories a day and men need around 2,400.*
  • When the calorie count is high – say greater than 20% of the daily total or 400 calories – look askance
  • Decide if the extra calories are from too much wholesome food or from “empty calories” full of added sugar and/or animal fats but with negligible nutrients.
  • For wholesome food, I split the serving with my companion or carry away half, and for empty calories, I decide if I love it enough and have to have it right then. (Luckily, I’m not impulsive.) If yes, then I have it; if no, then I skip it. But if I were to feel guilty or otherwise, awful, I’d ask why and think of it as a growth opportunity.

Righteous indignation seems to fuels me. You can’t get me to eat most of the crap sold in American chain restaurants. I don’t value filling my body with junkie food. I am attracted to fresh food well prepared, mostly by me. Usually, I’m sated at don’t care about dessert. If I really want dessert, then I eat it only a little at the meal.

Your thoughts: What do you think about calories on the menu?

*To find your calorie requirements, use this chart from the government or use a calculator fromany one of the online diet websites.