Will More Nutrition Facts Help Curb Obesity? Don’t Count on It

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Shortly after slathering some cream cheese on my multigrain bagel Monday morning, I opened up the St. Petersburg Times to see a cover story with the headline: “Consuming Truths.”

Accompanying the story was a photo of the same type of bagel I was eating: “Dunkin’ Donuts multigrain bagel with reduced-fat cream cheese,” the caption read. “500 calories. 17 g of fat. 850 mg of sodium.”

I cringed, but ate the bagel and cream cheese anyway.

Calories and grams of fat, the Times reported, could start creeping up a lot more if health advocates who are pushing for restaurants to list nutrition information on menus get their way. Advocates believe the move could help curb obesity by making people more aware of their caloric intake.

Fifteen years after the government mandated that nutrition labels be printed on packaged foods, however, obesity among Americans continues to rise. This seems to suggest that while nutrition facts can make people more aware of how many calories, grams of fat, sodium, etc., they’re consuming, they aren’t enough of an incentive to stop unhealthy eating habits.

I agree that it’s important for people to be aware of what they’re eating, but I don’t think that giving them caloric information is the way to go about doing it. Too often, people focus on numbers as a cover-up for what what they can’t easily measure, especially when it comes to food.

I’m thinking in particular of those who have eating disorders. Calories become an obsession for them, something to be counted, written down and feared. They’re a distraction from all of the underlying emotions that cause people to restrict, binge, purge, etc.

To further complicate the problem, doctors often tell eating disorder patients how many calories they need to consume to reach their “goal weight” during hospital stays. While the patients become physically stabilized in the hospital, all of the underlying emotions and issues that led to the eating disorder continue to mount beneath the rising pounds.

The key to fighting obesity and other issues people have with food, then, isn’t to focus on numbers; it’s to hone in on what’s behind the problem of eating unhealthy. The problem, I would argue, stems from a lack of time, self-respect and community.

Americans are constantly rushing around by themselves, and many don’t have the time to give their bodies the care they need. So they turn to fast food, microwavable dinners, or no dinner at all. As the Times reported, “Most Americans consume one-third of their calories from food prepared away from home, whether at restaurants or as takeout from grocers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says almost half of those calories come from fast food.”

Flash back a half a century ago and people were eating meals together, not waiting in line at the drive-thru. Dinnertime didn’t mean stuffing your face with a Big Mac and fries while driving to an assignment, soccer practice or a doctor’s appointment; it often meant sitting down at the kitchen table and catching up with family or friends.

Eating in the company of others nourishes people more than they might think. I notice, for example, that I always eat more when I’m alone. Very often food, when used as a remedy for stress, fills a temporary void that leaves people feeling full psychically, but unfulfilled and empty emotionally. Then there is the opposite side of the spectrum — the loss of appetite people might experience when they’ve lost the sense of companionship they once had with someone. Take, for instance, the infamous “divorce diet” that accompanies divorces in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Given the ways society has changed throughout the past few decades, it’s easy to see why a lack of time and community has made this “bowling alone” generation so obese, so out of touch with how they’re fueling their bodies.

Rather than focus on how many calories people are consuming, then, why not focus on promoting the communal nature of food? I’m often amazed by how expensive some cooking classes are. What if the same health advocates who are pushing for more nutritional facts were to push for free or low-cost cooking classes in a local community instead? Offering such classes could be a great way to help people take the time to make their own food and come to understand what goes into the food they eat.

The cooking classes could also include a “food education” section, in which nutritionists or others who are well-informed about food could explain what the numbers on nutrition labels mean. Reading that something has 6 grams of fiber in it or 35 mg of sodium, after all, means little to people who don’t know what eating fiber and sodium does their bodies.

Along these same lines, why not offer people in the community opportunities to work on farms — to feel the dirt that their carrots grow in, to see the cows where their milk comes from, to hear the chickens that lay the eggs they eat? As one student who was interviewed in a recent New York Times piece about farm internships put it, “I’m not sure that I can affect how messed up poverty is in Africa or change politics in Washington, but on the farm I can see the fruits of my labor. By actually waking up every day and working in the field and putting my principles into action, I am making a conscious political decision.”

If access to farmland is a problem, health advocates in urban areas could start community gardens that residents could care for in communion with one another. Helping people cultivate an interest in locally-grown and organic foods would likely give them a better sense of how they might be able to trade in their daily Starbucks pastry for fresh fruit from the garden, and why that matters.

Developing a sense of community around food and an understanding of where food comes from and what it does to our bodies matters when it comes to healthy eating. Knowing that a multigrain bagel with reduced-fat cream cheese has 500 calories and 17 g of fat is a very small, if not insignificant, part of that.

I’m curious to see what others think about the idea of healthy eating and what we can do as a society to enourage it. What’s your reaction to this?