Skip the Nutrition Label for Peace With Food.
March 9th, 2020 by Sara Upson
Have you ever been at a restaurant or considered purchasing a food only to see the calories posted or the nutrition label and change your mind? For some people reading that statement might seem like a good thing.
When you’re struggling with an eating disorder, disordered eating, a lifetime of chronic dieting and/or trying to heal your relationship with food- the nutrition label is a huge barrier and harmful. Instead of being helpful it keeps you stuck, in fear, struggling with restrictive behaviors, feeling anxious stressed and overwhelmed. Not a good thing at all.
To heal your relationship with food- skip the food label. It can’t tell you what your body needs, it keeps you stuck, and prevents you from moving forward!
Food labels were not required on food products until the 1990s. Prior to that there were requirements about food handling and processing (for food safety). Then in the 1960s a label with ingredients was required on food. It wasn’t until the food and safety-labeling act of 1990 that required most food products to have a complete nutrition label.
30 years later, it seems like you can’t get away from the food label. It’s on the back, sometimes on the front, highlighted in bold letters, on menu boards at most restaurants- everywhere.
Most research suggests that having a food label or including calories on a menu board hasn’t lead to improved health. That showing calories everywhere doesn’t cause lasting change (or even change)- instead it makes people feel guilty. AND- that the most vulnerable individuals with eating disorders are harmed by these labels.
For the record, I’m not suggesting that food labels shouldn’t exist. I think it’s important to be able to know what’s in your food, that manufacturers are held accountable, and that the information is available should you need it for certain health conditions such as food allergies, kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc.
I’m saying- that the food label probably doesn’t serve you and that you don’t need to be looking at it. Especially if you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, become an intuitive eater or make peace with food.
The goal of recovery and intuitive eating is to become an internally driven eater. Where instead of focusing on food rules or food labels, you focus on reconnecting with your body, hunger and fullness cues, satisfaction, etc.
Using a food label is externally driven eating. It doesn’t help you connect to your goal of healing your relationship with food or becoming an internally driven eater- it does the opposite.
Besides promoting body disconnection, here are some other reasons to skip the nutrition label:
1. It might not even be correct- Nutrition labels are allowed up to a 20% margin of error. That means for any given food item there could be 20% more or less of nutrient in the food. I don’t tell you this to make you nervous or make you feel like you need to account for this in your calculations (I don’t want you calculating to begin with)- but so that you can know those numbers aren’t reliable and something that you need to trust. Instead of focusing on calories (external)- focus on internal guides to eating: hunger/fullness, food preference/taste, energy level, how long you need the food to last, etc. If you’re on a meal plan, stick to your meal plan. You’ll feel a lot more satisfied, less guilt and anxiety and enjoy food more while also improving your health.
2. It can’t know your body- Nutrition label serving size is decided by the manufacturer. You know how at the very top of the label it says serving size followed by amount per serving? The thing to know is that this is decided by the manufacturer. It’s not a standard serving size and can vary from product to product and brand to brand. This is important because so many people who struggle with their eating look at the serving size and assume that it’s truth about what their body should need or how much they should eat and that’s it. In reality that number is more likely decided on packaging, cost, profit, volume, etc- not nutritional needs. The serving size on a package can’t tell you if it’s the amount your body needs, or if it will be enough for you- you have to connect with that internally. And if you’re on a meal plan- sometimes one package isn’t even one serving…
3. It’s based on a random number- The 2000 kcal daily value was chosen because it’s a nice round number. The 2000 calorie % daily value is supposed to make it easier for you to know how much of a particular macro or vitamin you should have in a day- but in reality it’s more confusing AND it’s based on a random number! Not because the number actually reflects how much nutrition people need.
The USDA wanted to use 2350 kcal as the number, but self reported surveys from the 1990s showed intake ranges around 2000kcal (remember these are self reported and they tend to be under). Then the USDA asked for public opinion and people thought that 2000kal was just easier to remember and a nicer number (kinda like that 10000- step number- just made up). Actual research to determine caloric needs using doubly labeled water found that 2350 kcal was too low for most adult men and women.
So here’s what you need to know about the label.
If you’re working to recover from an eating disorder or heal your relationship with food- don’t look at it. Cover it up, put a sticker over it or affirmation. Unless you have a medical need- you don’t need to know and looking will interfere with body connection and body trust, make you feel guilty and anxious, and potentially could lead to an eating disorder behavior. Don’t look at the label it doesn’t serve you.
The label can’t tell you what your body needs, it’s not a serving size or an amount that’s “right” for you- it’s just the amount the manufacturer decided on. Sometimes it’ll match USDA recommendations- but that doesn’t mean it considers your personal nutrition needs or preferences. As you’re recovering, first trust your meal plan and exchanges set by your treatment team. Then begin to work on honoring body cues. The food label won’t help with that! In fact, it usually does the opposite, keeps you focused on calories, numbers, and stuck.
The food label is an external guide that actually promotes disconnection rather than body connection. To build respect and trust with your body, you have to trust your body. That means choosing (and eating) foods that sound appealing to you- regardless of what that little box says.
Your nutrition needs will vary day to day– some days you might need more or less and that’s normal. When you rely on external cues you can’t honor this natural variation and you may even feel like you’re doing something wrong when the food, per the label, suddenly isn’t enough for you.
So if you need a food label to reference- here’s a recovery food label:
The next time you find yourself desiring to read a food label- check in with yourself first. Before you turn the food over, ask:
What will I get out of this?
What am I hoping to achieve or feel by looking?
If it’s permission, safety, reduced guilt- etc then know that looking may make you feel “safer” in the short run, but will keep you stuck in the long run. The belief that you have to know to feel okay eating the food- is the very belief that keeps you stuck.
These beliefs are rooted in the eating disorder, diet culture, food fears and need to be challenged.
Permission to eat doesn’t come from a food label– it comes from within you. Feeling safe with food doesn’t come with the right macro profile- it comes from reconnecting with your body and abandoning your food rules that keep you stuck.
Feeling less guilt and anxiety don’t come from knowing the exact nutrition profile- that’s a lie that actually increases anxiety, guilt, and food preoccupation. True freedom comes from knowing that you don’t have to know the nutrition profile. That you can trust your body to communicate with you how much you need and when and that you don’t need some random label from the 90s with a 20% margin of error based on a number chosen because it looks nice to tell you whether or not you can eat a certain food.