Welcome to Harpy Seminar, a regular feature we plan to have at regular intervals, unless we get too busy to have it at regular intervals, in which case it shall appear whenever we have time and inclination for it. Each Seminar begins with a question, which we discuss amongst ourselves, and we then edit the highlights of our conversation into a post. Please feel free to join in in the comments!
Note: This seminar was originally conducted prior to Thanksgiving, but we decided to wait untilafter the year’s most food-centric holiday to post it.
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: So, on the heels of this cartoon I’ve been thinking (more) about the obsessive public calorie counts that go on in our society. Now, in New York City, certain restaurants have to post the caloric values of their offerings, just so you can’t possibly forget that those fries you just ordered were 500 calories. Maybe I shouldn’t be shocked by this, but in all the dialogue about posting calorie counts, the contention seems to revolve around whether or not people have the right to be “babysat” in this manner. But the issue of fat-shaming and reinforcing disordered eating — not disordered in the sense that someone should not order fries, but that these kinds of public displays make it all but impossible for a person battling any kind of ED to not immediately start adding up daily caloric intake.
BeckySharper: I knew we were going to talk about this so it was especially strange that when my mom and I were at Starbuck yesterday she said, “I wonder if the sales of their baked goods have gone down since they started putting up those calorie counts.” We both agreed that we were a lot less likely to get the pumpkin loaf slice because we knew how many calories were in it.
sarah.of.a.lesser.godThat makes me laugh because I am currently noshing on a Starbucks oatmeal raisin cookie. Suck it, calorie counts. I still want my cookie.
BeckySharper: The positive aspect of posting calorie counts is that transparency about what goes into our food and how many calories it has helps keep Big Food honest. Because, like Big Tobacco, we know that they’ve spent years telling us that their product was totally fine even as they loaded it with more and more sugar, sodium, trans-fats and preservatives in order to get us hooked. It took public shaming and the requirement to post the fact that their food was cooked in trans-fats before McDonalds was willing to switch to a healthier frying oil. So in that respect, I am in favor of posting nutritional info, including calorie counts, because so many people eat processed food without having any idea how unhealthy it is. I’m pretty militant about the evils of Big Food, so anything that helps people avoid the damage their products can do is a good thing, IMO.
That said, now that they’re staring me in the face, I find myself mentally totting up calorie counts in a way I never used to. It’s easy to become obsessed and start rationing and putting caps on your consumption the way that cartoon pokes fun at. And I say that as someone who has never had to watch my weight or deal with any kind of eating disorder. I have to actively turn off the calorie counter in my head sometimes, and that irritates the hell out of me.
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: I agree about transparency for Big Food, and I remember certain chains saying “it’ll take forever to take out trans-fats and it won’t taste as good!” I think the larger issue (to me) is the question of who is being shamed? Big Food or the consumers?
BeckySharper: I never stopped to think about whether calorie counts shamed anyone. I guess I would have said they shame Big Food for trying to kill us with fatty sugary crap. But I can see why people who had internalized shame about food/weight would feel judged.
For the record, I don’t think anyone at Burger King would judge you for ordering the Cheezy MegaWhopper with Bacon. They WANT you to order it or they wouldn’t make it for you! It pays their bills, and that’s why it was specifically formulated with your Cheezy Bacon needs in mind. I suppose you might think someone standing in line behind you might judge you, but since they’re likely there to order the same thing, I don’t think they’d be all “OMG, why is she buying that??”
Pilgrim Soul:My parents got me calorie counting early. Around the age of 13 or so my dad was diagnosed as pre-diabetic and we promptly all went on his diet. It is actually the only time in my life I even approached skinniness; I seem genetically susceptible to sugar. At any rate! Thus I actually, out of force of habit, check the nutrition labels on everything I eat. We also cut back to a 30% fat diet at that time, and so actually I tend to eyeball whether something meets that criteria without even thinking about it. There is often a running tally in my head, and I frankly get a little anxious when I don’t know how many calories something is because of it. It just fits my obsessive personality. I sometimes feel like I kind of need the policing; though I’ve never been strictly diagnosed with an ED, doctors have occasionally voiced suspicion that I may suffer from compulsive overeating. Which should really be cured by intuitive eating, which I do try to practice! And which I do find is sometimes helped by calorie counts simply because it helps me feel out whether I’m really hungry, or just looking to eat some feelings.
I can see, therefore, why it would annoy someone like you, Becky, but at this point for me the inner dialogue is so obsessive that without calorie counts I get anxious too. So I don’t think it’s as simple as posting or not posting for anybody.
Sarah, sure the consumers are being shamed, but on the other hand, a lot of fat people report being ashamed to eat in front of anyone, calorie count or no calorie count. When I am out with smaller friends – even the Harpies – I often feel like I am eating too much, or too unhealthily, and although it’s surely absurd, I imagine you to be judging me anyway. It is impossible not to be somewhat self-conscious about food if you are overweight, I think. To feel like you shouldn’t be eating at all, anyway, you fat cow, etc etc, and on and on with the destructive inner dialogue.
All of that to say, I’m conflicted, not least because this is such a tiny part of the problem, to me.
BeckySharper: I think my internal calorie-counter dates from when I went into a depression after the breakup from hell, lost too much weight and had to gain it back. It was the first time I ever learned how many calories I needed per day and I actually started to pay attention to how many calories I was getting and learned how to use it to gain weight. I think the counter just stuck around even after I got healthy, and now it’s messing with my head a little.
True confession: I’m super-obsessive about other aspects of food, like making sure I get a lot of fruits and vegetables–preferably organic–and don’t eat too much red meat. But that’s because we have cancer in my family and I’m terrified of it. So I get really anxious if I’m stuck in a place where the salad bar is all iceberg lettuce and mayo (hello, Deep South!) or there’s no good fresh fruit (hello UK!) or where every meal is heavy on the meat (hello, Latin America!).
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: Yeah, the whole issue is complex. This is a culture that glorifies excess, unless it comes in caloric form, but that begs the question of what (and who) defines excess. To be sure, health issues like diabetes should be addressed and the point is to keep people healthy. And P.Soul, to your point about fat people being ashamed to eat in front of anyone and feel like you’re being judged, that’s something I’ve dealt with as well and wonder if I’ll always deal with. I always calorie count in my head, and now that I’m at a point where I’m trying to stop that, the whole public calorie counts screw around with my resolution.
PhDork: 1) Because I’m vegetarian and poor-as-fuck, I rarely eat out (1-2x a month), and even more rarely at places where calorie counts are required/listed. Maybe Dunkin’ Donuts, maybe once a month. So really, I’ve barely noticed.
2) I don’t have any serious food “issues.” I mean, I’m veg (for ethical/eco reasons moreso than health) and I know to read labels when I shop, so yes, I’m aware that what you eat matters, but I pretty much eat whatever the hell I want, whenever I want it. Sometimes that means I have Nerds and brie for dinner, sometimes I don’t have dinner, and yeah, I *feel* that, physically, so those spells don’t last too long.
That said, I see how the counts could be very shamey and/or triggering for many people, even if I’m of the opinion that what your momma told you in junior high is true: no one is looking at you; they’re all worried about themselves. In any case, I’m not sure if that outweighs the need to be an informed consumer, and for corps to claim some standard against which they can be judged.
I suppose the irony of the posting is that those who are most likely to be concerned–reasonably or not–about calories/weight/whatever are the ones who probably DON’T need the info.
Ideally, McDonald’s would be swallowed into the bowels of the Earth for its many crimes and you could just eat some fucking fries made from an actual potato.
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: PhD, it’s interesting that you mention being poor-as-fuck as one of the reasons why you don’t eat out. Personally, I tend to go to places like Starbucks or McDonalds (I know, I know, rap my knuckles), buy one thing and make it last for half a day so that I can stretch my dollar. I never cook because I have huge anxieties around cooking/baking and because I don’t trust myself around a kitchen full of food, I’m always going to buy individual portions. The added cost of that makes me go to cheap-ass fast food places. (I know, this is kind of tangential, but whatever.)
SarahMC: I counted calories for a few months during college because, y’know, I’m fat, I should be skinny, yada yada yada. But I grew bored of that pretty quickly. Sometimes I will think, wow, I’ve consumed far too many calories today, and I have a tendency to binge on sweets from time to time. My tight budget makes it difficult to eat “right.” During the days leading up to payday I eat whatever I can find: often a bowl of rice or two bowls of cereal for dinner, candy bars for snacks, etc. I also find that living alone makes healthy eating more challenging. My boyf enjoys cooking and makes very tasty, balanced meals. It’s just not worth it for me to buy lots of fruits and veggies or invest a lot of time in cooking when I’m the only one dining. If I were a better planner, I might eat healthier, more filling meals on my own. In general, I eat OK. But I don’t do any habitual calorie counting because in the scheme of things it’s not that important to me.