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Dangers of Nutritional Information

March 7, 2011

On a recent work trip, I was obligated to go out to dinner a couple of nights. The first night I didn’t know where we were going until we arrived (it was a last-minute decision). I therefore ordered my food based on what looked good and what I felt like, and I ate as much of it as seemed reasonable given my hunger levels.

The second night, I found out in advance where we were going, so I decided to check out the menu online. At the bottom was a link to “View Nutritional Information”. I couldn’t resist. I brought up the PDF of their nutritional breakout. And I was immediately sucked into the dangers of those charts and restrictive eating.

I found that I wasn’t even looking at what the menu options were, just the nutritional breakout. How many calories, how much fat, how much protein, etc. And then based on that, I was going back to see what the item was to determine if I might want to order it. I was a bit startled to discover just how caloric some things were, even innocent-sounding items such as lettuce wraps. What particularly horrified me, though, were the serving sizes. The sheet told me all the basic information but also how many servings were included in each item, and then how many calories per serving. Apart from a cup of soup, not a single item was portioned for one serving size – most, in fact, were at least three, some as many as four or five, and not just the appetizers.

Looking at it stressed me out. I realized that I slipping into old, restrictive eating patterns. I told myself that I wanted to find something that I could finish since I wouldn’t be able to bring leftovers home, as I was staying in a hotel, but I knew that was just a rationalization. The reality was more complicated. I was poring over the nutritional information partly because it was easy to do, with that link so convenient. But the deeper reason was that I wanted a sense of control. The whole week had been completely out of my hands and very last-minute, and I wasn’t happy about it.

That’s when I closed the information sheet and stopped obsessing. I decided that I would just go and look at the menu when I was there to see what sounded appealing. If I didn’t finish it, so be it, but I wasn’t going to try to measure and count and add everything up to achieve the perfectly balanced meal based on the nutrition information, tempting though that level of control was.

Don’t get me wrong – those charts can be very helpful, particularly for people who have certain allergies or medical conditions, and it can be instructive. The danger is that instead of allowing you to be in charge, the information actually takes control of you. But food is not just individual elements, rather the whole taken together. And I knew that once I was at the restaurant, whatever decision I made would be the right one, as long as I did what I had the first night: pay attention to what I was hungry for, stop eating when I was comfortable, and let the nutritional information take care of itself.

 

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