The Imperial Calorie

Is it better to know, or not to know?  Are there certain pieces of information of which you’re happy to remain ignorant?  At what point does “knowledge is power” get subsumed by “ignorance is bliss”?  And what happens when all of these considerations involve the number of calories in your food?

Thanks to a new federal regulation that kicked in earlier this month, those sorts of questions have become slightly less theoretical than they were before.  In compliance with the Affordable Care Act—and following years of resistance by special interest groups—all food establishments in the U.S. with at least 20 outlets are now required to post calorie counts of all their products in all their stores.

While many chains have been doing this voluntarily for years, the practice became law on May 7, which means you can no longer order a muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts without learning that it contains nearly twice as many calories as a bagel, nor can you finish a meal at Olive Garden without willfully consuming more caloric energy than the average American burns in an entire day—with or without breadsticks.

Of course, maybe this new law means nothing to you.  Maybe you are a knowledgeable, health-conscious consumer who knows exactly what you’re putting into your body at all times.  Maybe you’ve long been aware of how deadly chain restaurant food tends to be for your waistline and cholesterol levels, and you tread carefully whenever you indulge—as you do when eating at home, at work or at Thanksgiving dinner.

However, this would hardly make you a prototypical American, 160 million of whom are either overweight or obese—a jaw-dropping figure that suggests a majority of our fellow countrymen either don’t understand how their digestive systems work or don’t care, and who pose an existential threat to our national healthcare system in any case.

As a matter of public health, then, requiring eating establishments to disclose nutrition information is a no-brainer and a win-win, and has largely been accepted as such in recent years.  By listing calorie counts on the menu, a restaurant provides valuable, potentially life-saving information to those who might need it, while still honoring every citizen’s God-given right to eat whatever they damn well please.

The problem here—as I suggested at the top—is that you cannot un-see what is written directly in front of you, and there’s a certain group of Americans who really, desperately wish they could.  If some people want to know how many calories they’re consuming while others are indifferent, there is also a third category:  Those (sometimes including me) whose culinary pleasure is dependent on not knowing, chemically-speaking, exactly what it is they’re eating, and once facts and figures enter into it, the whole experience turns sour.

I don’t know about you, but when I was younger and first scanning the nutrition labels on every foodstuff in the kitchen, the whole point of dining out was to eat as much as humanly possible, because you had no earthly idea how many calories were involved and could therefore assume there were none at all.  As any corrupt politician will tell you, plausible deniability is a powerful thing.

Admittedly, one cannot responsibly live in such utter obliviousness forever—aforementioned 160 million Americans notwithstanding—and as I’ve grown older, I’ve become considerably more informed and mindful about the science of nutrition and human metabolism, which has enabled me to balance the books in my eating and exercise routines, as well as to perform ballpark calorie calculations in my head in almost any setting—a superpower that is both highly useful and profoundly irritating.

On the one hand, becoming educated about food has unlocked the secret to losing (or at least not gaining) weight and feeling generally in control of my destiny.  By turning meals into a math problem—or, more accurately, a budget—I am considerably less likely to stuff my face for the hell of it and then feel like crap for the rest of the day.

On the other hand, by being super-vigilant about what I deposit into my pie hole—say, by scarfing down three slices of pizza for lunch instead of six—I risk turning eating into a purely clinical and joyless act—something every diet fad in history has expressly tried to avoid, because why on Earth would you remove the pleasure from the most inherently pleasurable activity of your day?

It has taken me several years—and one rather dramatic period of weight loss—to reconcile those twin urges without driving myself completely crazy.  (As Oscar Wilde put it, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”)  While I don’t regret this strange journey to enlightenment (such as it was), I often wonder whether I’d be happier if I’d remained fat and ignorant instead of thin and neurotic—and whether America as a whole is feeling similarly now that it’s become virtually impossible to eat anything without the terrible knowledge of how much it’s costing us (in all senses of the word).  Whether our ability to live longer and healthier is necessarily making us live better.

There’s a saying amongst dieters, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”  How wonderful life would be if such a thing were actually true.


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