Has anyone else noticed the increasing number of restaurants and cafes that reveal calories either on their website or DIRECTLY on their menu? Despite having distanced myself from the calorie-counting and calorie-fixated mindset, I can easily place myself back in my mental state of four years ago and feel simultaneously stressed and relieved when I see the calories listed of menu items. To be honest, this is sometimes still an internal battle that I face. For those of you without an eating disorder history, calories listed seems harmless – if anything, it seems to be helpful! The difference is, there is often no guilt or self-shaming that is paired with the decision you make based on the calories it consists of.

Are numbers my worth?

When menus list calories visibly for everyone to read, it re-emphasizes the point that we SHOULD be focused on the calories we’re giving our bodies. These calories fail to mention anything in terms of nutrients or the nourishment that we’re filling our bodies with. So, it becomes easier to fixate on a concrete number, because it’s smack-dab right there in front of our faces to read. And when society tells us less is more, of course the option to pick the “lowest-calorie” option becomes more and more enticing. We are indirectly encouraged to focus on numbers, without giving much thought about the nutrient profile that the food has to offer.

What about listening to my cravings?

When we’re exposed to menus that list out their item’s calories, we automatically seem to focus less and less on cravings and taste preference, and more on the calories it contains. There have definitely been multiple experiences when I felt like having pizza, and then happened to “stumble” across the nutritional information on the restaurant’s website, which led me to choose something that was FAR from pizza as soon as we ordered at the restaurant. My cravings were not honored, and my ED won. Seeing calories can make us feel like we should feel like eating something because it is deemed “healthier,” and not necessarily because we actually want it.

My brain is yelling at me!

No mater what we end up choosing after seeing the caloric value of each menu item, our brain starts to torment us. Why? Let’s say we go with the low-calorie option; ED “wins” because it feels safe. It knows exactly what was put into our bodies and it doesn’t feel the need to restrict later to “make up” for the meal; and yet, we also feel guilty that we didn’t follow through with the goal we had for ourselves. On the other hand, let’s say we challenged ourselves and chose something that happened to be on the higher-calorie end. The recovery-focused mind feels proud; it just accomplished a fear food and it was given back some of the strength that ED likes to take away. However, now comes the guilt that ED says we must feel for our choice. We went against its rules, and therefore, we must be shamed for it. See the lose-lose situation that calorie counts on menus can present?

What now?

This is where intuitive eating becomes so crucial to learn and to practice. Intuitive eating depends on mindfulness; recognizing the difference between hunger and appetite, and choosing when to honor one or the other, or both! Intuitive eating means listening to your body’s needs, and honoring them. When we are presented with constant reminders of calories on menus, we often internalize this message to mean, “the menu item you choose is a determining factor of your worth as a person,” while allowing these messages to continue to impact and influence our future decisions. This is where it becomes so crucial to have a solid plan in place before we decide to go out to eat. This can look a few ways.

  1. Identify how you currently feel, and how you want to feel after you eat. If I am currently feeling a little dizzy, weak, and have a headache developing, I’ll most likely want to eat something more nutrient-dense to help balance my blood sugar levels. I’ll want to feel stronger and more energetic after I eat. By practicing mindfulness before we go out to eat, we are more in tuned with our body’s needs, and more inclined to make a food choice that will satisfy those needs.
  2. Have a friend choose for you. Of course, as we develop more self-awareness and a greater ability to overcome ED’s voice and rules, this plan won’t always be in place. However, this can be extremely helpful during initial stages of recovery. Having a friend choose reveals normalized eating habits, as well as challenging the control ED wants. Having a friend choose means taking the power away from ED and placing it in someone else’s hands.
  3. Have an idea of what you’re craving to eat before you go to the restaurant. Order it without looking at a menu. If you’re craving a burger and going to an American restaurant, it’s more than likely they’ll have a burger on the menu. When the server asks you to specify, “which one?” allow this to be an opportunity to ask for a burger with ingredients you actually enjoy. This forces you to keep the menu at a distance, and also to build awareness of flavors and tastes that you prefer.