How to Cope when Suddenly Calorie Information is Everywhere


Courtney Watson

date published

April 11, 2017, 9:30 p.m.



Over the past couple of months you may have noticed that suddenly calorie information is showing up in places it has never been before; on the menus and display cases at the shops and restaurants you frequent. This is because Ontario has a new menu labelling law called the Healthy Menu Choices Act which came into effect on January 1, 2017.  This legislation affects restaurant chains and other food service providers with twenty or more locations, including convenience stores, grocery stores, movie theaters and other businesses that prepare food for immediate consumption.  It requires the display of the number of calories in food and drink items on signs and menus.

For those struggling with disordered eating or working to maintain recovery, this legislation may have some unintended harmful effects.  Just like frequent or obsessive weighing, calorie counting becomes a negative tool for the eating disorder against a sufferer.  The eating disorder can use numbers to draw lines in the sand; “you are a good person if you kept under this number” or “you are a failure if you went above that number”.  Either side of the coin leads to a desire to increase restriction and engage in symptoms. Promoting a focus on calories offers a reductionist view on how to aim for balance in eating.  If this new legislation has been turning up the volume on your eating disorder voice, try these strategies to help fight back:

Stay consistent.  If you often frequent certain restaurant chains, like Tim Horton’s or Starbucks for example, you likely have a few typical orders that you return to each time.  Don’t give in to the temptation to make substitutions for a lower calorie option.  Order what you know you like and have enjoyed in the past.  The more you do this, the easier and more automatic it will become over time.

Plan ahead.  Make a plan for yourself in advanced as to what you will order.  You can give yourself a guide map for your order without having to research a menu (where calories are listed) in advance.  For example you might decide you want to order a pasta dish, or a meal that features fish.  If you are dining with someone in your circle of support, tell them about your plan and ask them to help keep you accountable to it.  Pick something that is as close to your plan as possible from the menu, and don’t second guess yourself or change your plan in the moment.

This information is not for you.  Adopt the mindset that the calorie information listed on menus is not for you.  While it may be helpful for someone else, it’s more likely to be used as a tool of your eating disorder, than for the part of you that wants to achieve or maintain recovery.  Try thinking about the calorie information as similar to the French translation listed on signs and labels. Most of us see the French words, but we don’t pay it much attention because we know it doesn’t apply to us.  Try taking a similar approach to the calorie information, and remind yourself that it’s not information that is helpful or relevant to you.

Get curious about urges.  If you find yourself experiencing strong urges to calorie count, or to make order substitutions based on caloric information, try to notice what else might be happening for you when these urges are strongest.  What emotions might you be experiencing in those moments?  Are you feeling stressed or anxious going into the meal or snack?  Are you feeling lonely, sad or angry?  Are the urges stronger at certain times of the day or week?  Use the pattern or trends that you discover to plan ahead.  Brainstorm strategies to respond in times when you know you are likely more vulnerable to seeing calorie information.

Change takes time.  Don’t pressure yourself to stop calorie counting suddenly overnight.  If you have been struggling with this symptom, you might need to take gradual steps over time to get to your end goal.  During earlier stages of the journey, you may benefit from asking family to remove food labels from items at home, from focusing on cooking meals at home, or visiting smaller independent shops and restaurants where calories are not listed.  

Courtney Watson is a Clinical Social Worker who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders.  She currently splits her time between her Private Practice and the Young Adult Eating Disorders Program at Southlake Regional Health Centre. Courtney also regularly facilitates groups and workshops at Sheena's Place a community based centre in Toronto.  

Find her at or on twitter @cwatsontherapy

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