Publishing Calorie Counts on Menus Helpful or HarmfulIs It Helpful or Harmful to Publish Calorie Counts on Menus

At lunch with a friend recently, we perused the menu board as we waited in line to order. After I placed my order I stood by as my friend choose a meal, noticed the published calorie count, hesitated, then changed her order to something else. As we moved toward the cash register she whispered “I don’t like those calorie counts on menus. They make me feel so bad. I really wanted the first dish but figured I should stick with something lighter.” As she said this she stared down at the floor, clearly conflicted. My heart really broke for this woman, such a wonderful person and so strong, now overcome with shame for having wanted a meal with more calories.

Why Publish Calorie Counts?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website, the purpose of nutritional labeling in chain restaurants and food retailers is to help consumers make informed choices about nutrition. Restaurants that fall under certain categories must comply with this rule by December 1, 2016.

For people who are on diets or meal plans for medical reasons, this rule may make it easier for planning and ultimately better health. Unfortunately, for people with eating disorders it has the potential to be quite dangerous as it feeds into the obsessive nature of the illness. It can also breed shame in guilt and spread the message that watching what we eat is something we SHOULD be doing.

Does it Change the Way We Eat?

An article written for CNN summarizes a study of chain restaurants that have chosen to publish calorie counts ahead of the December 2016 deadline. The study reports that these chains, Starbucks and Panera among them, may have opted to post calorie counts due to a generally higher demand for healthier foods by consumers. Chains that feel they may have a “healthy advantage” over competitors might opt to post nutrition information to help guests make decisions, or due to pride about their use of high quality food ingredients.

In the same article, a recent study found that consumers in New York City chain restaurants did not change what they ate in response to the published calorie counts. Even so, some restaurants are working to reduce the calories in their meals in time for the 2016 deadline.

A Potential Trigger?

My friend does not have a history of an eating disorder or distorted body image, so I was surprised to see her so distressed about choosing a meal at the restaurant. It’s really made me think about the potential effects these public calorie counts have on people who struggle with an eating disorder. Eating out is a challenge in itself….how can one maintain recovery when faced with the nutritional information on every menu?

We are bombarded with messages daily that are directly in opposition to the recovery messages we have worked so hard to create. Work with your treatment team to help you make a plan for when you encounter your specific triggers. With support around you and tools to mitigate distress, you’ll be able to build armor against messages that don’t align with your recovery journey.



Storrs, C. (2015). Do restaurant menu calorie counts change the way we eat? CNN.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Overview of FDA labeling requirements for restaurants, similar retail food establishments and vending machines.