Better dead than fat: a lawful evil
The Healthy Menu Choices Act works for all the wrong reasons Please be advised that this post contains graphic discussion of living with an eating disorder, counting calories, purging, and food rituals.
Last week, TVO published this reported feature that I wrote about the Healthy Menu Choices Act. I've read criticism of my arguments and I take it to heart, so I'm expanding on what I meant in a more personal way. I'm going to talk about how the changes have affected me negatively, to show that it's not just about "1.5% of people aged 15 and 30 having a hard time with it."
So, let's go back to the pizza place that I mentioned in the TVO article. When I got back to Toronto in January after the winter holidays, I didn’t have any substantial food in my apartment so I went to Pizza Pizza in search of dinner. I'm partial to Hawaiian pizza — I'll argue to the death that pineapple belongs on pizza — but I wanted to try something different this time. I looked up at the menu, forgetting that the legislation demanding that calorie counts be displayed came into force on January 1, 2017.
My local Pizza Pizza branch.
I’m doing my best to recover from an eating disorder and I was unprepared to see those numbers. They didn't tell me anything that would help me make a meaningful distinction between the options. Instead, they told me that all the choices were bad and that the best selection I could make was 'none of the above.'
Now, I didn’t go to Pizza Pizza expecting a healthy meal; it’s pizza for goodness’ sake. I know it’s not a wholesome food. But seeing the numbers changed the way I read the menu. It was no longer about simply choosing something to eat: it became a question about whether I deserved to eat anything in the first place.
I thought about how I would feel once I'd swallowed it, how it would sit heavy in my belly, slow my movements, make me sluggish and bloated. I imagined how I would look once I'd eaten it, how the food would distend my abdomen, as though it were growing of its own accord.
To make up my mind, I tried to remember what I'd eaten that day. I’d had a sandwich of unknown nutritional value for lunch. I'd also eaten two packs of cookies and I hadn't kept the bag so I didn't know how many calories were in those either. I'd had apple juice, orange juice, and some small cups of water. I knew the brand of juice so I could look up how many calories were in that, but I didn't know the volume of the cups so knowing the calorific content per serving wouldn't help me.
It was impossible for me to use mathematics to determine whether I was allowed to eat anything or not. I tried to focus on something other than the calories, but by that point, the idea of eating anything nauseated me. I could see grease crusted on top of the pizzas on display. I could smell the deep-fryer ready to serve me weight gain in a box. If I bought something and ate it, I knew I'd feel awful afterwards. I'd feel like a failure, like my life was spiralling out of control. I'd try to fix it by ramming my fingers down my throat while bent over the toilet, atoning for my sins like a layperson before an altar. But it wouldn't be enough. It never is. I knew that no matter how hungry I felt, I'd feel worse after eating from that menu, so I left without getting anything.
In this instance, the Healthy Menu Choices Act changed my behaviour and made me do exactly what the Ontario government wants consumers to do: I didn't eat the food that is allegedly 'bad' for me. Maybe they'd consider that a victory. I should write to them and demand my medal. They ought to be paying me to write this post: I'm a shining example of how well their legislation works.
When my classes resumed, I went to Tim Horton's on my break to get something to eat. I should have known better but I was again surprised to see the numbers staring back at me. Suddenly, the chocolate lava muffin didn't look as appetizing. Neither did the hot chocolate, which I learned had the same number of calories as the muffin. Again, I left without getting anything.
I haven’t bought anything to eat during breaks since.
Now, whenever I want to grab a bite with my friends, I either have to mention that I’d prefer not to go to a place where calorie counts are displayed, or just hope that they don’t pick a large chain. Most of the time, I don’t say anything because I don’t want to make them uncomfortable or make them feel self-conscious. In those cases, I order whatever I can bring myself to order without thinking about it too much, eat it as quickly as possible, and excuse myself to bathroom so I can vomit as much as I can into the lavatory basin and get back to the table before anyone notices.
I understand what the Healthy Menu Choices Act is supposed to do. It's supposed to help you make informed decisions by showing you the nutritional value in your food options. In an ideal world, I'd go to an eating establishment and not have to think about my relationship with food. I'd be able to listen to my hunger cues and be satisfied with my choice. If that reality were possible, I'd choose to live in it.
Sadly, it's not. I know that calories aren't an indicator of whether or not a type of food is good for me. But this act legitimizes the idea that they are. It legitimizes the evenings I spent logging my caloric intake in my journal. It legitimizes the hours I spent in the gym, not leaving until I was sure that I’d forced my intake into the negatives. It legitimizes the fact that I weigh myself multiple times a day so I can rationalize trying to eat less and less. It legitimizes the fact that I don’t eat before I go out, sometimes fasting the whole day before, because that's the only way I can justify enjoying it.
The logo of the National Eating Disorders Association has become a symbol of eating disorder recovery. Image via Art & Therapy.
The solution here isn't ignorance. All this information is online; I could know how many calories are in a slice of pizza in less than a second. The difference is that when I have no choice but to look at the caloric content as though that should be the deciding factor in my decision-making, I'm being pushed into a destructive mindset where I can't judge what I need. The question isn't whether I choose a pizza or a salad, it's whether I eat or not. Is it truly healthy to put someone off their food to the extent that they'll choose not to eat at all?
I'm not advocating for less information; I'm advocating for more. Nutrition ought to be taught in schools in a way that doesn't demonize certain food groups and contribute to anti-fat prejudice. We need infrastructure where everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background, can access fresh produce. I'd like to see conversations about comfort eating, body image, weight, health, and dieting become commonplace. The province needs to increase funding for eating disorder treatment programs and make good on its commitment to public health. For now, I'm trying to stay positive. By avoiding establishments bound by the law, I've discovered some lovely independent places to eat that I wouldn't have found otherwise. But it's difficult. I've taken to tracking what I eat again, something I haven't done since I was 17. I can't have popcorn when I go to see a movie with my friends, because the act applies to the food available at theatres too. I've fallen back into some of the routines I used to rely on when I was in a far worse mental state than I am now. It's a dangerous path that has only ever led to despair and the Ontario government is cheering me on as I walk it. If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, I've listed some resources that may be useful. Although some services are location-specific, many of them offer information and remote help. I am also available to talk and offer support in whatever way I can. Feel free to leave a comment here or email me using the contact form on my site. If you’d prefer to reach out on social media, my links are on the right. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) The National Association for Males with Eating Disorders (NAMED) National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) Eating Disorder Hope Beat