The Wellness Risks Of Being Too Obsessed With Reading Food Labels

Food labels provide a lot of important information. You probably know people with food allergies or sensitivities who rely on their accuracy to prevent potentially deadly reactions. Others wish to avoid or at least limit exposure to certain ingredients or preservatives like high-fructose corn syrup, GMOs, or artificial sweeteners, so they read labels diligently. 

Those purposes aside, the main reason a lot of people turn that can or box over is to check the label for information about vitamins, nutrients, calories, protein content, and so on. For people looking to build muscle, increase calcium levels, or control their cholesterol, this is a treasure trove of beneficial information. After all, data is king, and in a country where almost 7% of children and teens, as well as many millions of adults, "have high total cholesterol," it's critical to give them the tools to help themselves. That said, the practice of reading food labels isn't for everyone. In fact, for people who struggle with disordered eating, reading food labels can be a problematic habit.

If you need help with an eating disorder or know someone who does, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Here's why reading food labels is precarious for certain people

Traditional food labels and calorie details at restaurants, while beneficial for some, are a dicey prospect for people who struggle with disordered eating. In fact, one study published in The International Journal of Eating Disorders found that when presented with calorie labels in a restaurant setting, women with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa ordered meal choices with fewer calories than their other counterparts, whereas those with binge eating disorder ordered higher-caloric options. So, although these labels are in place with the intent of helping people make more informed choices, it's backfiring for some people on shaky ground. 

Compulsive or obsessive reading of food labels or other restrictive habits that cut out entire foods and groups actually has a name: orthorexia. Billed by the National Eating Disorders Association as an "obsession with proper or 'healthful' eating," orthorexia is not currently in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a formal diagnosis, but it's becoming more well-recognized. Done to excess, restrictively healthy eating can actually adversely affect a person's health by causing malnutrition or exacerbating anxiety or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Some signs of this problem are excessive ingredient/nutrition list checking, overwhelming concern about ingredients, cutting out entire food groups, and intense focus or upset regarding food options at events and/or what other people are eating.  

How psychotherapists help people who read labels obsessively

This is not to say that the typical person can't compare food labels on products from time to time, as some items contain more sugar, ingredients, or macronutrients than other similar ones. But anyone who knows or suspects that they have disordered eating should refrain from checking labels and instead seek help from a professional who specializes in such matters. 

Often, the National Eating Disorders Association says, treatment will involve psychotherapy to get to the root of the issue, but it might also include exposure to foods or groups that the subject is avoiding to help them reprogram the brain to accept them as good nutritional options. After all, there is no morality in food; foods and food groups don't inherently fall into positive or negative camps. They simply exist to give us energy. An adept psychotherapist can help a person to reframe their relationship with food, and food labels, to hopefully make eating a less triggering experience. For some people, reducing this stress will also mean checking fewer, if any, food labels.