Why Talk of the Obesity Epidemic and Calorie Counts is Actively Harmful

[trigger warning for eating disorders, suicidal thoughts]

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.

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on August 23, 2011, in body & size and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. As a likely fellow EDNOS-er, I really appreciate the bravery that went into this post. I also feel the need to remind you, even though I’m sure you know already–that person was being an asshole, and that person was very, very wrong. I hope today is a little bit easier for you.

    • *hugs* I mean, I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, because there is a lot of cultural stuff playing in there. But I also felt that whether or not she truly believed what she said was logical, the language was obviously hurtful. So that was kind of ass-y. Ah, well. Today is a better day.

  2. Lavender Menace

    Thanks for sharing. I’m really struggling with my eating disorder at the moment and I’m very glad that we don’t have these calorie signs in the UK as they would make eating out extremely difficult for me.

    • Fortunately, they’re not everywhere. Some places have them more off to the side, like a wall poster with information for all the food that you can fairly easily find or ignore at will. Good luck with your struggles *big support*

  3. I’m 100% on your side of this even though I actively NEED nutrition information. This policy doesn’t serve anyone. I have celiac disease and I would be perfectly happy to get my nutrition facts in a freakin’ brochure upon request, the way I used to get them 😦

    This approach doesn’t help anyone. Those who are triggered by diet talk have it forced down their throats and those who actually need the information only get the information that they choose to try to fit on the overhead menu. I still have to ask for a brochure.

    Which often leads to Incidents.

    “May I please have the nutrition brochure?”

    “The fat and calorie info is right up there.”

    “I understand that, but I’m not trying to lose weight, I’m trying to make sure that I don’t eat gluten and also to make sure that I get enough food, since I can’t have 90% of carb-related items in this restaurant. Please find me a brochure, it’s a legal obligation.”

    *nasty look–yes cashier I am aware that there are 5 people in line, why don’t you put the freaking brochure out so I don’t have to bother you?*

    • Good points! When I worked at a restaurant, we were required to show the full ingredient list to someone who asked if a particular ingredient was in a food, even if we thought we knew the answer. Though in that case it was more of a CYA since someone could sue if we were wrong, I think it makes sense. I don’t even mind if information is listed in a big wall poster off to the side (though again that’s nutrition, not ingredients, wouldn’t work for you) like some restaurants do, but having it be that close to the food and the price means that there’s no way to ignore it.

  4. You’ve made such an important point here: the obsessiveness that goes along with disordered eating. Many people with eating disorders get to a point where they can no longer control, or even recognize, when the obsession is triggered.

    • *hugs* Yep. I’m sort of borderline so a lot of the time I just don’t want to deal with it, but when it comes up strongly like that it’s really frustrating!

  5. Thank you for being so honest about your experience. As somebody who has never had an eating disorder or been very close to anyone (that I know of, at least) with one, this post was definitely an eye opener. Although that person was still being an inconsiderate jerk. I hope you are doing better!

  6. Thank you for making this point so clearly. I have struggled with eating disorders as well as a restricted diet (celiac & more!). When I was diagnosed and had to relearn how to eat, I counted calories, protein, carbs, fiber, fats to ensure I was getting decent nutrition. At first it was almost “fun science!” but after six months I couldn’t prepare a meal without my scale or eat the meal without my PDA scorecard. I wish I could put this essay in front of all the nutritionists-in-training to prepare us for a calmer approach to a brave new world of food.

  7. I’m really triggered by calorie counts at restaurants now and I feel a little validated knowing I’m not the only one. As soon as I walk into Au Bon Pain in the hospital where I work, I try so hard not to look at the numbers .. and usually end up not partaking in the business lunch that everyone else in my meeting is so happily enjoying.

    While I understand the reasons for the counts, I really wish that they would be made available upon request, but not smack you in the face as soon as you go to eat a pastry or get a sandwich. As you said, I know that I’m indulging or that the food has calories. It’s the number that’s the problem.. it’s a trigger.. and it makes it impossible for me to enjoy an indulgence or turn off that “you’re eating too much” part of my brain.

    Reading your post was very helpful. Thanks for your candid honesty.

  8. I understand this so much. I know this post is years old (I’m poking around on your blog a little), but I just had to comment and thank you for writing this. I’m in recovery for a mishmash of eating disorders (started actual recovery in 2011 after a lifetime of disordered eating). I currently have a system that works for me most of the time, when I’m not willful and belligerent and not following my program (so far, I’m up to just over four months of doing well this time around)… Hope you’re doing well on the food front as well.

    People with issues surrounding food and eating have different specific issues, and different paths to healthiness and sanity around food. While nutrition fact signs are triggering for some, they’re helpful for others. The obvious solution is have the nutrition info available but not right in everyone’s face… But we as a society really have to be more careful about how we address food and eating. I think that the general public is still in denial about eating disorders being, well, disorders. Especially the concept of food addiction (I identify primarily as a food/sugar addict). I’m not sure of the statistics, but am aware that not all people who are obese have eating disorders (nor are all people with eating disorders obese). I think that with the signs they’re trying to tackle the issues that the crowd who just “doesn’t know better” about what nutrients are in food faces… but that is detrimental to a huge portion of folks with eating disorders, especially those of us for whom weighing and measuring and counting is triggering. Ughhhh.

    Another sad thing is that most people who I’ve talked to about my eating disorders (or food issues/eating disorders in general) have fallen into one of two camps. A good many of them identified with my disordered behaviors because they’ve engaged in disordered behavior of their own (and thankfully some of them have started their own recovery, or had already started by the time I talked to them about it). The majority of the remainder just don’t comprehend how a mind obsessed with food and weight ticks, or don’t get how that is a problem.

    … well. That got away from me. Thanks again for writing this.

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