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Calories On Menus Are Making Healthy Choices Even Harder

05/23/2017 01:42 EDT | Updated 05/23/2017 01:52 EDT

Contrary to what the Ontario Ministry of Health is saying, listing calories on menus will not make us healthier. In fact, it can actually make some of us sicker. But as of Jan. 1, 2017, the new menu law went into effect.

menu calorie

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

According to the ministry, "providing the number of calories on menus will help customers make informed choices about what they eat," but that's just not true. I understand what they're going for; I believe that their effort is somewhat valiant, yet sorely misguided and here's why: giving people partial information with which they're supposed to make informed decisions is just not going to work. Simply having the caloric count of a food item does not come close to telling us what we need to know about its nutritional content. In fact, it can be counterproductive. We need to be teaching people how to truly read labels and understand that the number of calories is not nearly as important as what those calories are made of.

As a body-image advocate, I lead workshops at schools that teach kids about the manipulation that goes on by the diet industry on a daily basis and I teach them what being healthy is really about. At least once a week, I'll have a student ask, "Is 100 calories a lot?" and my answer is always, "100 calories of WHAT?"

Kids are afraid of calories and fat, and will lean towards foods with less calories even if they also have less nutritional value, simply because we are a society that is completely fat phobic. If we were to simply choose foods based on calories than we'd be choosing a cup of deep-fried French fries over a cup of quinoa. Quinoa (222 calories) is a food that is high in protein, fibre, iron and other nutrients. French fries (182 calories), while delicious, aren't nearly as nutritious.

Calories alone do not provide adequate information and can be misleading.

If we let calorie counting be our health guide, we'll be choosing a package of Skittles at 231 calories over four ounces of salmon containing 236 calories. It sounds silly, but it proves that calories alone do not provide adequate information and can be misleading.

But the problems go deeper than that.

1. Restaurant industry insiders

Restaurant owners are complaining that the new menus are costly and complicated. James Rilett, vice president of industry association Restaurants Canada says, "It's a lot more complex than it looks from the outside. I mean, there are 10,000 different ways to make a sub."

Recently, I spoke with a franchise owner of a popular pizza shop who told me that he wanted to offer salads as a healthy option, but was told that he couldn't do it because figuring out the calorie content would be too much of a hassle. It seems counterproductive that the inclusion of calorie information ended up resulting in the healthiest choice on the menu being eliminated completely.

2. Eating disorder sufferers

Having to see the calorie content of everything they eat on a menu at a restaurant can be devastating for someone struggling with an eating disorder. The shame and guilt associated with the number they see could result in them feeling unable to eat anything. Calorie counting is used as a negative tool for a person with an eating disorder, and the goal is to get them away from that type of behaviour. Food and fear should not go hand in hand, yet the anxiety caused by the idea that food choices are either "good" or "bad" can have dangerous results.

But it's not just those with food issues that are being negatively impacted.

teenager eating fast food

(Photo: Chabyucko via Getty Images)

Michelle, a 45-year-old woman who's never battled any type of body image issues, shared with me that she was surprised at her own reaction to the new menus. She went into the restaurant knowing what she was going to order, only to change her mind when she saw the number of calories it contained and suddenly felt self-conscious about her choice. She opted for something that felt healthier, only to be left unsatisfied. As a result, she found herself snacking later in the night and inevitably making up the calories she had attempted to save during dinner and also feeling like a bit of a failure.

Still think this is a good idea?

According to researchers from Carnegie Mellon, "Putting calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people's ordering behaviours at all." They called this approach "well-intentioned but unrealistic."

I asked a group of teenagers their opinion, and was told that the only way the new menus affected their food choices was if two items had similar calorie contents, they'd choose the tastier one. One teen gave me this example: he noticed that a salad full of berries and seeds had a similar calorie count to an order of poutine, so he figured he might as well just have the French fries covered in cheese curds and gravy since they were virtually the same thing.

We're so terrified of fat in our society that we look for quick-fix, Band-Aid-type solutions to obesity.

Um... not quite.

Let's recap:

The people who would benefit from nutritional information in restaurants either aren't interested in it or are being mislead by incomplete information, while the people who don't need or want the information are being negatively impacted by it.

I think that restaurants should have the information handy should a customer ask for it, but not have it forced on the rest of us.

We're so terrified of fat in our society that we look for quick-fix, Band-Aid-type solutions to obesity that rarely ever help.

Until the government has some real solutions, I'd really appreciate it if they'd keep their majorly flawed ones off my plate.

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