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Calories On Menus Canada: What Nutritional Information Should You Be Looking For?

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Calories aren't just the first number you ignore on the nutritional label anymore — they could be coming to a menu near you soon.

With the announcement this week that McDonald's restaurants in the U.S. would be posting calories on its menus, as well as offering a few healthier dishes, plenty of questions have come up concerning what exactly it means for how people will eat.

"I think [posting the calories] is important to bring awareness — that's definitely the first step to making change," Rachel Berman, director of nutrition at CalorieCount.com told the Huffington Post Canada. "The problem with calorie counts is it’s not providing the full picture."

Berman points out not all calories are created equal — "The ones in a Quarter Pounder are going to be different than the ones you’ll find in the grilled option for the Happy Meal," she notes. Factors like the amount of fibre makes a difference in how full one will feel once they finish the meal, not to mention the amount of sodium or saturated fats in the dish.

McDonald's is actually "jumping the gun," as Berman puts it, acting voluntarily on a program that President Obama is expected to require nationally for chain restaurants as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

As for Canadian venues posting calories right up front, McDonald's restaurants here are apparently developing their own plans. Another chain, Panera Bread, with six locations in the GTA, announced its voluntary posting of calories on menu boards yesterday, but despite a vocal health critic pushing for the change, it doesn't appear to be coming soon.

As the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association responded on their site:

"As part of our healthy living strategy, the [CRFA] and our members have been leading the charge on a made-in-Canada solution to providing nutrition information that is clear, visible and comprehensive ... Our solution is far more comprehensive and informative than what this private member’s bill proposes, and takes into account the unique nature of the restaurant environment, where there are various flavour options, customized orders and serving sizes that aren’t listed on a menu board. We also know that Canadian restaurant patrons are interested in more than just calories. They have a wide range of dietary concerns, such as sodium, fibre, protein or fat content."

It sounds similar to how Rachel Berman thinks we should approach our nutritional needs. So what should we be looking for in calorie counts, or otherwise, on a menu?:

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What You Need To Know About Calories
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Not All Calories Are Created Equal
"Certain calories will be more nutritious, will fill you up with fibre, make you feel more full over the course of the day," says Rachel Berman, director of nutrition at CalorieCount.com. "You have to look for heart-healthy fats, or whether a food has a lot of saturated fats."

How Much Do I Need In A Day?
"Most nutrition facts are labelled based on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet," says Berman -- but that's an average amount, not something that should apply to the whole population if you're trying to stay healthy.
An easy way to calculate your calories per day, says Berman, is take your weight in kilograms and multiply that by 25. If you'd like to lose weight, take your ideal body weight and then multiply that by 25 to see the number of calories you should be striving for. "But I would never go under 1200 calories per day," Berman notes.

Know What You Need In A Meal
One of Berman's biggest concerns with the menu labelling is that while it tells people how much is in a meal, it doesn't help them figure out what they need in a meal.
Berman says a rule of thumb is 300 to 700 calories a day, but that varies quite a bit. What you can do is divide your total number of calories per day into the number of meals you have per day -- so if, for example, your ideal calories-per-day is 1800 and you eat three meals, you're looking at 600 calories a meal.

Get Some Resources To Find Out
"Not to be all self-promotional," says Berman, "but CalorieCount.com has apps on the go, so you're able to look up a food and we actually give it a grade based on its nutrient density -- it's based on a lot of different factors." She notes there are other sites who give similar information as well.

Know Your Macronutrients
Simply put, people should be looking at 50 per cent carbohydrates, 30 per cent fat or less and 20 per cent protein in their diet each day -- what Berman calls macronutrients. "That's not to mention getting enough fibre, limiting your sodium, your saturated fats, things of that nature -- but once you get the macronutrients down, the step can be 'Am I getting enough vitamins and minerals?'"

Balance Yourself
"I like to focus on the balance of the meal," says Berman. "If you have a very nutrient-dense meal, like a burger, what you need to do if you're still hungry after that is pair it with a low-calorie food, like a carrot or another vegetable to even it out."

Don't Go Overboard
"Don't be someone who always needs to have 1500 calories," says Berman. If one day you have a little more and the next a little less, that's fine -- just aiming for a general number will be a good goal.

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