The Government Is Going to Help Us Count Calories: But Is That A Good Thing?

 Getty Images

Soon you'll know exactly how many calories you're getting in that slice of pizza, 20-ounce latte, tub of buttery popcorn, to-go breakfast burrito, or craft cocktail. The Food and Drug Administration has announced monumental new rules that will require chain restaurants, fast-food joints, coffee shops, bakeries, movie theaters, and even grocery and convenience stores to post calorie counts on their food and drink menus. This regulation is set to take effect November 2015, except for vending machines, which have two years to comply.

The goal of this new rule is to give us a clearer picture of what we're actually eating and drinking, since Americans, on average, consume one-third of our calories outside of the home, according to the FDA. The feds hope that by forcing food and beverage purveyors to put total calorie tallies right in front of us, we will be more inclined to choose lower-calorie options. Cutting calories, the FDA believes, should help stem the nation's titanic obesity crisis.

But is simply listing total calories truly the best way to steer us toward healthy food and drink choices? Some health experts aren't so sure. While most agree that there are positives aspects of this mandate — namely that it raises awareness about just how many calories are hidden in foods and drinks you don't prepare yourself — some feel that it misses the boat.

"Calories are really not what we should be focusing on," says Keri Glassman, a registered dietitian in New York City. "I'm not saying they are not important to watch — they do matter. And when calories are listed, it can make you go 'Wow, I can't believe this food has so many calories' and make you think twice about what you're eating. In that way, the FDA's new rule can be a good thing. However, focusing solely on calories does not necessarily make you consume fewer. In fact, it can lead you to make worse food choices."


What matters much more than straight-up calorie counts, Glassman says, is the quality of the food or beverage. "You could eat 200 calories of a pasta that has almost no nutrients in it," she explains. "It's basically just a highly processed food that's not going to fill you up or give your body what it needs. I'd much rather you eat 300 calories worth of wild-caught salmon, which has healthy fats and lots of other nutrients. And because that salmon is so satisfying, it can help you learn to listen to your body and better determine how much food you really need. Next time you might find that you're good with only 250 calories of salmon. On the other hand, the pasta eater will probably wind up eating two, maybe even three, 200-calorie servings in one sitting."

This same logic applies to picking the healthiest possible foods at the grocery store, where manufacturers are already required to list nutrition information. Glassman advises looking beyond total calories — and even beyond the info given in the Nutrition Facts panel — and examining the ingredients list first. "Basically, you want to go with items that have real-food ingredients and the least amount of ingredients that you don't really know what they are," she says. "There isn't really a blanket recommendation for how much fat or sugar you should look for, because it completely varies by type of food. For example, when you look at a jar of olives, which are an amazing whole food that shouldn't be processed or changed in any way, they should have a lot of fat. That's OK. But olives should not have added sugar."

FDA regulations or no regulations, the best way to eat healthy is to always think critically about what you put in your mouth. "What it's really all about is becoming more educated about your food and listening to your body better," Glassman says.