Why Talk of the Obesity Epidemic and Calorie Counts is Actively Harmful
I had a very painful experience yesterday that I’d like to share. I thought about doing this privately, but I decided that it was worth talking about in public because my readers mostly come for a mix of queer issues, feminist, and human rights law, and you may not be aware of the insidious harms of body shaming and talk about the “obesity epidemic.” There is a slim chance that the person I’m telling this story about could read this article. I hope that if she does, she’ll understand that it’s not about her, and I’m not saying that I hate her as a person or that she’s a bad person. I don’t want to shame an individual here. I want to point out the context of her words, that we live in a society where vitriol like this is acceptable. For that reason I’m not saying who she is or how we met, just that she’s someone I know in a professional capacity.
So here’s what happened:
We got into a discussion about the “obesity epidemic,” where I was arguing that a lot of the public health messages about obesity harm more than they help, and that children shouldn’t be shamed into diet and exercise. Her position was very different, so I decided to disclose my personal history of eating disorders (probably EDNOS, I don’t really know how to categorize it yet) in hopes that my perspective might be one she hadn’t considered. It didn’t really do much good in the abstract, but eventually we got around to talking about the calorie signs that many big cities now require to be displayed in restaurants.
Her position is that these signs are a good thing—that seeing the calories clearly will reduce obesity because people need “all the facts” and more information is a good thing. Since I disagree, I decided to share a story of something that recently happened to me.
I was in Au Bon Pain, where I usually grab a pastry a couple of times a month in the morning on my way from the train to the bus in Union Station. I’d had a cheese danish numerous times before and been perfectly happy with my choice. This time, however, the calorie display rules had gone into effect and the calorie count for that danish was printed in large font, right by the price, in a place impossible to ignore.
It wasn’t the danish itself that triggered me that day, or the fact that danishes are unhealthy. It was simply the number. As I tried to explain to this person, an eating disorder is a mental illness. It’s not logical or rational. The problem was that number, staring me in the face, in a place where I couldn’t choose to ignore it.
This isn’t a case of someone not knowing the calorie count of a particular food and being shocked to find it, which is what many are going for when they argue in favor of calorie signs that you can’t ignore. I was perfectly aware that a danish is a highly caloric snack, and I was happy with that fact. I haven’t had a bathroom scale in about four years. I don’t read nutrition facts. I have a basic understanding of what’s in food, and I eat when I want to, because I want to. I wanted to have that danish, and I knew it’d be a large snack, bigger than some meals. I was fine with that.
The problem here was not related to having or not having information, but the number itself. My family culture was relatively innocuous where diet and exercise are concerned. My parents did not encourage dieting. I never looked at fat counts or detailed information. But I found calorie counting and knowledge of one’s own weight to be a natural thing growing up, from the time I was a teenager. If my mom gave me a little reminder about calories, that seemed incredibly insignificant next to the actual fat shaming that my friends’ parents threw at them (which my mom virulently opposed) or the obsessive nature of crazy diets.
Little by little, the slow creep of disordered eating began, and I’m still surprised when I realize the impact its had on my life.
As an adult, I “successfully” did weight watchers (on my own, since I couldn’t afford the program). I lost fifty pounds, which felt like a huge accomplishment. That was the second time I managed that, reaching my goal weight. I wasn’t tiny, but it wasn’t ever really about weight. It was about an obsessive focus on numbers, the feeling of guilt when I saw the calories on a snack someone gave me, that I ate out of politeness, and then couldn’t eat the rest of the days. I didn’t use the “flex” points because I wanted to show my will power. My mom had always praised me for will power, from the days where I used to slowly ration out Halloween candy over many months. I was demonstrating that I still had that. After weight watchers, she kept repeating that I could never be too thin, that she could recognize that (having been about 100 pounds at 5’9” as a young woman) and she’d let me know.
The point of all this is that for me, disordered eating is a mental illness that revolves around obsession with numbers. Even recently, when I’ve tried to just track my protein/fat/carbs percentage to make sure I’m eating a balanced diet, having those concrete numbers there has been dangerous—I have trouble getting protein as a vegetarian who only eats fish once or twice a month, so I would end up eating well under a healthy calorie count to make sure those percentages stayed in line and I got the gold star on the tracking website.
I explained to this person that the problem wasn’t the cheese danish itself. It was that I heard that number (I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I don’t want to ruin that delicious danish for anyone else in ED recovery!) over and over and over in my head throughout the day “number number number number” until I was so overwhelmed that I was feeling suicidal.
It was hard to admit this to someone I don’t know well, but I thought it would be impactful. I figured she probably didn’t know what it’s like to have an ED or disordered eating, and this would be a powerful statement.
She came back with the argument that if eating disorders are say, one percent of the population, then she’s just prioritizing, because obesity is such a huge epidemic—I was feeling suicidal, maybe, but only a few people would feel that way, so I can’t dictate a policy that affects so many. If I hadn’t been starting to feel a trigger coming on already, I probably would’ve realized that her numbers were off, but that didn’t really register. Instead, I argued that even if few have an ED, it’s a matter of relative risk. She was saying that obesity is a big health problem too, that these people are killing themselves slowly, but my argument was that the immediate severe impact of this policy on a small population should be enough to, for example, move calories to a wall where you only have to view them if you want to. And then she said the thing that most triggered me in this whole conversation.
If that cheese danish was so much to make you suicidal, then you should’ve had a salad or something.
You should have had a salad.
Now I know where she was coming from logically. She was probably approaching this in a rational way. “Calories made you hate yourself, so the solution is to eat fewer.” But that’s the thing. That wasn’t what brought on those thoughts. Without the calorie count, I wanted the danish. I knew, roughly, about how many calories it was, and I’ve never felt guilty before for eating those calories. Rather, I have been psychologically conditioned to hate and fear the number. I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t have an occasional danish, where my only choice is to eat a salad or face the crushing obsession that those numbers bring on. I don’t think that’s fair.
According to this person, calories are only data. We’re just giving the public information. When I suggested that maybe the goal should be health, not losing weight, her argument (specifically, related to children) was that aesthetic is more effective than health in our superficial society. It all seems perfectly logical to her.
If you felt suicidal, you should’ve had a salad.
The bottom line is that an eating disorder isn’t about healthy choices. This is a mental illness that impacts many people. The diet mentality that this person was espousing is all about the idea of control—that the people who fight obesity are better because they control their urges, the puritan idea that for most people, obesity is just a moral failing. But that’s not the way the world works. The diet mentality is harmful, and it’s especially harmful when it’s used in a way that no one can escape it. This is what causes eating disorders, as well as exacerbates them.
It may seem logical to many to say that “well, genetics affect some people, but the obesity epidemic is huge, a lot of people must be eating too much!” The calorie display argument assumes that people are eating too much because they don’t know, but I think that they do know. I think that this obsession with numbers is killing a lot of people in our society. I think that a lot of people eat for revenge against the numbers, or try to diet and find that dieting doesn’t work (sorry, it doesn’t, not really) and then get into a cycle of yo-yo dieting or self-hatred or whatever else. Not everyone is supposed to be thin, but the obsession with thinness may be making more people fat, much to the consternation of the “obesity epidemic!!” folks.
I think that it’s crucial that we add a mental health component to how we look at diet and exercise. We need to consider what’s happening to our children mentally, as well as physically. We need to interrogate our fear of fat, because it’s not helping. Some people are fat. Why don’t we celebrate the beauty of our population’s diversity, rather than freak out about it? Why not tell children that everyone’s body reaches a natural set point, and that for their overall health, they should play outside and eat some vegetables whenever possible, rather than warning them about the dangers of weight gain?
I’m feeling a little better now, but this conversation had me in a state of high-alert for more than ten hours. I couldn’t sleep. I felt tense and tight. I felt the swing of depression bearing down on me. Even if you don’t agree with what I’m arguing from a policy perspective, please consider how the incessant “diet and exercise!” talk might harm another person, whether they disclose an eating disorder or not. I appreciate your consideration.