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June 14, 2010 / missmarymax

The Cost of Calorie-Counting: Why I Don’t Buy that Starbucks Cares about My Health.

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You know what I love?  Coffee.

Seriously.  I love that it is warm (or cold), that it’s delicious, that it can be blended with other things that are also delicious, that it comes in ice cream form, that it comes unadulterated, that it’s soothing, that it helps with my migraines, and that it keeps me awake.  (To, er, name just a few reasons.)  My ethnic studies classes may not have brainwashed me, but the coffee cartel totally has.  I am on board, people.  I am on board.

So, you would think, given my intense adoration for this beverage, that I would also be a fan of those who sell it.  And to some extent, you’d be right.  I can, after all, give decent directions to all six coffee places within ten minutes of my home.  I can confirm that there are precisely six places to get coffee within that range, and I can easily provide details regarding their prices (specifically regarding my OTP, the cafe mocha) and their general location on the Scale of Evil-doing.  (Local businesses?  Free trade?  Corporate devils?  You ask, I can direct.) 

That said, my coffee-philia has been hampered lately by an increasingly common business practice, which several of the nearby cafes have implemented.  The Starbucks version, which they’ve put a significant advertising push behind, is called “Build Your Own Frappucino” and emphasizes their “new” made-to-order drink options, the blended beverages you can design yourself. 

Forgive my habitual skepticism, but I need to pause a moment here.  I need to ask, as casually as I can, the last time that your frappucino (or other coffee beverage) was not served “however-you-wanted-it”?   Unless I’m mistaken, the persnickety hipster contingent has been a longstanding market for coffee culture.  Frasier, for instance, was parodizing fussy java-lovers as early as 1993.  Over the past five years, I haven’t managed so much as a hot chocolate order in a cafe, without an employee asking whether I’d like whole  milk or skim.  And before my future spouse (the cafe mocha) and I can get it on, I’m nearly always asked to clarify my feelings regarding whipped cream, the aforementioned milk, and that seductive extra shot.  My preferences regularly shift between orders, but the inquiry into them remains a predictable constant.  More importantly, even the rare barista who fails to ask if I’m a whipped-cream girl has never hesitated to add or remove the cream at my request.  In the disproportionate number of hours I’ve spent in coffee houses, I’ve never heard a customer’s “special” order or substitution denied.  …Which leads me to ask:

How new is this “new” policy, this define-it-yourself coffee beverage Starbucks is so keen to market to us?

I’m going to go out on a limb that it’s not at all new.  I’m also going to contend that the new focus on DIY* beverages isn’t solely selling choice.  (In all honesty, we’ve had choices for some time.)  Instead, I think this is a not-very-covert attempt to capitalize on the growing obsession with the ill-defined concept of “health.”  The majority of the ads I’ve seen in Starbucks showcasing the DIY frappucino do not emphasize the pomegranate and tangerine flavored syrups that have been added to our options.  Rather, they emphasize the possibility of a “lite” frappucino, a frappucino with — (big surprise) — fewer calories. 

Starbucks is not the only coffee shop that has decided, recently, that the best way to sell me my favorite beverage is to emphasize its low-cal alter-ego.  Two of the other chains in my area have recently boarded the bandwagon.  Einstein Bros has added several high-publicity “low-cal” options, while Panera has recently redone their menu boards to list the calorie content of nearly every item they sell.   Again, the change is presented as an attempt to empower consumers.  Not only is the decision now in our hands, but it is now an informed decision.  At least, so says the party line.

My initial impulse, when I saw the revised menu boards, was to check my frustration.  After all, I have a history of an eating disorder, which I bring with me to the register every time I order.  The fact that I can argue — truthfully — that these boards are incredibly triggering and not-helpful for those of us with EDs — does not automatically mean that they have no use for the general public.  As someone who used to request “nutritional information” routinely in the early stages of my recovery, I happen to be aware that nearly any restaurant will provide it to a customer upon request.  But how many of us would postpone our order while the employee headed to the back room to search out that flyer?  How many of us have time, on our lunch breaks, to weed through the small print and educate ourselves about our options, so we might make an informed decision?  Maybe, I sighed — as I restrained my urge to bitch out a manager — this was a good thing for the rest of the world, if not for me and my far-too-many friends with EDs.

If I’d bought that line I tried to sell myself — the line about this being good for the general public — I probably wouldn’t be writing this post.  But there are two main reasons I just cannot buy into my own rhetoric:

For starters, even the people I know who don’t have eating disorders rarely understand “health.”  They strive after it, certainly; they obsess over it, but far more of them (whether they realize it or not) manage that murky title of “disordered eating” than manage to take consistent care of their bodies.  The reviews showering Panera and crew with accolades reek of diet culture rhetoric.  This glowing endorsement  from Marjie Killeen, for instance, mentions that more restaurants are likely to go the way of Panera, given “Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity.”  This uncritical reference to the First Lady’s campaign ignores the vast number of nutrition and ED experts, as well as Health at Every Size and Size Acceptance activists who have spent months passionately critiquing the First Lady’s conflation of obesity and poor health.  It ignores the fact that Michelle Obama has personally clarified**, in response to these criticisms, that her focus is on nutrition and physical activity — not weight, size, or appearance.  Although not entirely on topic, Killeen’s reference is a telling marker that she has bought what Paul Campos terms “the obesity myth” — the dangerous and scientifically unsubstantiated idea that thinner people are healthier than those deemed “overweight.”

Killeen’s investment in diet culture — and the myths that sustain it — is not only evident in her off-the-cuff discussion of “obesity.”  She also references her past involvement with Weight Watchers, name-checks an iPhone ap that allows her to count calories, and emphasizes that she chose the less-caloric of two vegetarian options.  Most strikingly, she contends that “having a choice when it comes to calories makes eating extra satisfying.”  This final remark is an interesting claim, but I’m inclined to call its bluff.  Killeen’s satisfaction does not, by all appearances, result from an availability of choices.  Rather, it stems from having made the so-called right choice, from having taken the low-cal option that leaves her feeling “positively virtuous.” 

But this exact moralization of food, which leads Killeen to feel “virtuous” for choosing a “lite” option, would lead her to feel ashamed for making a different choice.   When eating determines not only how nourished you feel or how happy your tastebuds are, when it also defines how “good” you are or how “well” you’ve done, you are heading into dangerous territory.  It’s a territory that many of us occupy on a regular basis, an obsession that I personally know too well.  I don’t head to Panera to feed this obsession.  I head to Panera to feed my belly.

I don’t mean to call out Killeen, specifically, here.  There are plenty of other posters who have similarly praised their local restaurants for making caloric information readily available.  I’m simply using her post as an illustration of the ideology it represents almost perfectly, an ideology I consider dangerous, which I would prefer not to have driving the restaurant business.

I take issue with the fact that busineses like Panera and Starbucks are finding new ways to capitalize on American food anxiety.  I also take issue with the fact that they’re framing these initiatives as empowering steps toward health-consciousness.  Killeen, in contrast, is on board here also.  She writes that she can now “choose [her] lunch based not only on what sounds good, but [on] how good an item is for [her].” 

I’ll admit that I can honestly see how that would be empowering.  I may enjoy a good brownie, but I’m also a huge fan of many so-called “health foods.”  I know I feel better when I consume the balance of proteins, fats, carbs, veggies, and fruits that I’ve found to work for me.  I know that, just as I’ll start craving chocolate if I don’t get it regularly, I’ll start claiming peas when I go without them.  For these reasons — most of them informed by my experiences seeing a decent dietician — people frequently mistake me for a health nut. 

But the base meal plan that works for me is not based on calories.  It’s not based on calories for a very simple reason: Calories offer almost no information.  I cannot imagine how one makes an “informed” decision based on calories alone.  It strikes me as similar to buying furniture, sight-unseen, over the phone.  The salesperson — who I’m making blind for the sake of this analogy — may be able to tell me the cost of my new sofa, love seat, and recliner, but he cannot give me a sense of whether they match my apartment’s overall aesthetic.  He cannot tell me whether I will find them comfortable, whether they will match, whether their upholstery is damaged.  Calories, my friends, are like blind salespeople.  They appear to have information, but really, they leave us with many unanswered questions.  Calories don’t tell me how this food will taste, whether I’ll have an allergy to it, how recently it was prepared, whether it meets my unique nutritional needs… The vast majority of us do not know how to read calories in a way that truly informs our decision-making around food.  Instead, we view them solely through the  lens of cost:  Less is more.  You’re healthier (and more virtuous!) if you eat less.

I find it telling that the majority of these institutions are placing their items’ calorie counts on the menu boards, directly next to the price lists.  The cost of a meal at Panera, or Starbucks, or Einstein’s, is no longer solely monetary.  Calories (and the guilt that makes them powerful) are the new added expense of every meal.

While I’m honestly not opposed to informed decision-making — (even when it comes to restaurant orders) — I just don’t believe the claim that we’re this easily empowered.  Informed decisions require more than added information about the food we’re ordering.  They require that we understand how to use that information.  Our current understanding of “healthy eating” — which has been defined primarily by advertisements — has not taught us how to process and apply this information.  All we’ve been taught — literally — is that it’s healthier to restrict our intake than to gorge.  And even that little gem is an out-and-out lie^.

I don’t want to know the calorie count of my food.  I want to eat my food.  If I wanted to know the calorie count, I could have requested it.  If I wanted a Lite frappucino, I could (always) have requested it.  I — and most of the people I know — are not better off for having this information, for having these options made explicit.  “Regular or lite?” can trigger a cycle of guilt, not just for those with eating disorders but for a good portion of the population, that insists “lite” is the more “virtuous” choice.  I’m not looking to my food to restore my virtue.  I’m looking to my food to keep me fed.

…And to keep me healthy?  I suppose.  But I will relentlessly contend that those who are looking at calorie-counting to keep them healthy need to look a bit deeper. 

As for me, I’ll be doing my best to frequent the 3 local coffee shops that still provide this information only on request.  I’ll be opting in on that extra shot, (which they do not advertise but will happily provide).  And I’ll be opting out, as often as I possibly can, on the brainwashing.


*I guess that’s “Design It Yourself.”  Do it yourself coffee usually takes place at home and involves a coffee pot.

**Clarified, yes, but changed course, no.  The First Lady continues to contend that issues like heart-disease are “weight-related” illnesses, and the official site for Let’s Move still describes it as an effort to “solve the epidemic of childhood obesity.”

^I realize that in linking an article about the mortality risks of being underweight, as evidence that not eating is as unhealthy as gorging, I fall into the same trap as Michelle Obama: the conflation of eating habits with physical shape.  (Oh, socialization.  You die hard.)  However, since many people who actively restrict are intentionally pursuing a thinner — even an “underweight” body type — I would contend, with the addition of this semi-head-hanging caveat, that this study on weight and mortality remains relevant.



Leave a Comment
  1. Alacrity / Jun 14 2010 3:14 pm

    I have always built my own coffee. Cafe mocha, iced, no whip, with soy milk. That’s how people order coffee. This whole thing bothers me, too.

    I have never feared calories (my weight fluctuates a lot I am just blessed to not care) but now I have to seek out high fat foods for the vegan kid. I always feel funny in stores when things are labeled low fat or low calorie and I am all, “GAHHHHH!” Kids need fat.

  2. missmarymax / Jun 14 2010 3:30 pm

    Precisely. We *all* need fat. It’s our stored energy source, for Pete’s sake. Less AMP(tm), more fat, that’s what I say. 🙂

    One of my fave moments last semester was when my bio teacher explained this to my shocked classmates. It was up there with the time she explained the function of carbohydrates as “why people who do Atkins’ die” and the time she called Hydrogen a slut.

    Good luck searching out those fat-free-free foods.

  3. Deanna / Jun 14 2010 3:45 pm

    LOVE your post Mary, but just so you know — before the “build-your-own” frappucino you could NOT get it made to order. I am allergic to milk, but I could not get a SOY frappucino until now. (It used to come already mixed up with everything except ice).
    An additional story to support your point – I ordered an iced tea at a restaurant and after being asked the usual (sweet or unsweet, lemon or no lemon) I was asked “Ice or no ice.”
    — to which I replied, “I ordered ICED tea” and the waitress said “Yes, but some people don’t want ice in it.”

    • missmarymax / Jun 14 2010 4:54 pm

      Hey, Deanna! Thanks for the correction. Full-disclosure: Starbucks is not a go-to coffee place for me, usually, so I wasn’t aware that they couldn’t do simple substitutions like that. (Ordering soy is uber-common elsewhere.) I’m sure there are many happy lactose-intolerant and vegan customers these days. 🙂 Like I said, choice is really not my issue; I’m all for choice. I just take issue with the hierarchy of choices that says some are more moral than others, and disguises exacerbating our anxiety around how we eat as empowering us to make our own decisions. Enjoy the soy coffee!

  4. Brittany W / Jun 14 2010 8:01 pm

    My first thought on seeing the new ad campaign for Starbucks “wait, can’t you do most of that already?” And your point about calories not being enough to make a decision are so right on. Before I got to Starbucks, I pull up their nutrition info online. I look at the fat content, the sugar content, and I decide whether I want that whipped cream. But I’m afraid that people who are intent on staying within a certain calorie range rarely consider those other factors. By all means, eating too many calories isn’t a great idea, but if something is low-cal but really high in fat…you’re probably better off going for the higher calorie item that has less fat. I also hate the whole idea that there are “good foods” and “bad foods” or “right food choices” and “wrong food choices”–it’s totally bogus. Eating in a healthy way is all about moderation and variety.

    Do you mind if I post a link with some of my own thoughts over at SparkPeople? I am sure this would give my fellow Sparkies a lot to think about.

    • missmarymax / Jun 14 2010 11:46 pm

      Not at all! Thanks for sharing.

      Part of the problem I have with the notion of “too many calories” — and calories as something to be avoided, is the implication that there’s a universally healthy way to eat, for all people. Even when that’s whittled down to “all people this height” or “all people this age,” it strikes me as suspect. My body is unique; it needs unique care. The best way for me to determine what it needs is to learn to communicate with it, and to honor the messages it gives me, whether that message is, “For the love of Pete, CHOCOLATE” or “Brussel sprouts. Stat.” Balance, like you said, is so key, and it’s also key to find — and trust — the balance that feels good to YOU… even when the health experts are saying otherwise.

  5. Carmelo Leach / Jun 15 2010 8:20 pm

    You have done it again. Incredible article!

  6. Riana / Jul 21 2010 8:19 pm

    hi mary

    i always find it interesting to read what you have to say.

    i do want to take the liberty to respectfully disagree with one point you make though….

    to clarify where i am coming from, i am lucky to say that an eating disorder is somthing that, for a change, i am _not_ dealing with, and never have. i eat what i feel like eating, and i weigh myself exactly every time i go on a plane trip .- to weigh my luggage!

    so i am part of the non-ED “general population” that you mentioned, and i _do_ find nutritional information at restaurants and cafes, well… informative.

    there is this smoothie place that i went to every now and then, one of the things we dont have in germany, and those are what i tend to seek out while i am in the states. 🙂 so…. one time i actually noticed the nutritional info they put up and i was _shocked_!! i realized that the large serving size for most of their choices has about (i really dont remember exactly, see, i am not that much into this) 600 to 700 calories!!! i mean, hello?!?! even _i_ know that this about what a decent meal has!! [end of the story: i ordered myself a regular smoothie like always, but she misheard me, so i ended up – for the first time – with a large one! – i got a “free upgrade”, lol]

    i had somehow assumed that smoothies would be healthy. you know…. made of fruit juice…. ? :shrug: i guess i was really naive. i did know they contain ice cream, but come on now, 700 calories, that is ridiculous!!

    so in this case, the info actually educated me that i was obviously not consuming what i _thought_ i was consuming, but some crazy sugar-stuffed who-knows-what-else-is-in-there fabrication.

    to me, high calories are an indicator of a high content of either sugar or fat or both. while both sugar and fat are necessary, there can definitely be a “too much” of those. so it is a simple rule of thumb to take a closer look when an outrageously high calory number appears somewhere.

    i am not concerend with how many calories i take in, but i do try to eat in a somewhat healthy way, e.g. i try to eat at least one piece of fruit per day and try to cook with fresh veggies, etc. and i really think that something that is artificial, over-processed and stuffed with sugar and/or fat – which as a side effect results in a high calory count – cannot be healthy. so calories are not the culprit, but they are…… guilty by association? 😉

    also….. in the simple example of which coffee to choose….. i think it is pretty obvious what the info behind the calory numbers is – whole milk vs no-fat “milk” (ugghhh!!) and cream vs no cream and sugar vs. sweetener are obvious ways to reduce the calory number….. so i do think that people know what they are choosing, at least in simple contexts like this one. (saying, i dont think the furniture metaphor necessarily works so well…. you usually have at least a general idea of the ingredients; and i dont think anybody would be surprised that a triple-cheese pizza has more calories than a regular lunch salad with joghurt dressing; here, the salad actually would also be the healthier choice, i personally would think, and the one i would prefer.)

    it may well be that most members of the “general population” are more obsessed with calory counting than i am and behave just the way you describe when making their choice which coffee to order (the “right” choice). i’m not sure what to say about these people except that i have always stared at them in wonder and found them just a bit weird – but as i said, that is bc i cannot relate; and i am sure many ppl find my personal ways more than just a bit weird, too.

    well…. i am not going to apologize for being the one dissenting voice here, since i know you are perfectly able to handle me! 🙂

    and thank you for bringing to my attention how nutrional infos posted at places must be huge triggers for ppl struggling with EDs…. i admit that this is obvious, but i had never before thought about it.

    take care and keep writing, i enjoy your thoughts and that you bring my attention to things i usually would not think about! 🙂


  1. Presenting Blog-Posts-Past and Blog-Posts-Yet-to-Come. | Miss Mary Max

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