Which is healthier, the cobb salad or the cheeseburger on the menu of your favourite fast food restaurant? The difference may be smaller than you think, which is part of the rationale behind new legislation that could make Ontario the first province to require publicized calorie information from food chains.
It’s something akin to labels in the grocery store, though without the same detail.Though the provincial government action is a positive prospect, its Healthier Choices Act is a single-pronged approach to a multi-faceted issue of overall health, said Region of Waterloo Public Health nutritionist Ellen Curitti.
“Some studies have shown that [calorie information] makes a small change in what people order. One of the cons is that it is a weight-centered approach. We tend to start equating weight with health and that’s not necessarily the case because even if something is lower in calories, if it doesn’t have a great nutritional composition it’s still not health-promoting.”
The calories may be posted, but customers will not be able to put them in context with the sodium, trans fats and sugars that are also being consumed, she explained.
“[The legislation] also doesn’t tell us anything about things like fruit and vegetable content or whole grain content; the nutrients that are actually meant to promote health. We keep approaching obesity with calories when the real problem is that the quality of the food supply is degrading.”
The act, developed in consultation with the food industry, would require calories for food and beverages, including alcohol, to be posted on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores and other food service premises with 20 or more locations in Ontario.
The law would authorize public health inspectors to enforce menu labeling requirements. The fines for failing to comply with legislation, if passed, would range from $500 to $10,000, according to the Ministry of Health.
What we eat affects the rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke and nutrition-related cancers, which Curitti notes, are not exclusive to the obese population or prevented by a focus on calories.
When it comes to the calorie-counting approach, the studies are mixed.
“It depends on who the audience is. One very small study found that young men equated calories with taste. They thought that if [food] was higher in calories it would taste better so they started ordering more calories, which was an unintended side-effect, but I haven’t seen that replicated in any other study,” said Curitti.
Studies are also largely divided on the use of calorie information. Some populations, often those that are already very health-conscious, are more likely to be swayed by the practice of counting calories, while other groups studied show a disinterest in knowing how many calories they consume and thus see no change in nutritional intake.
A 2013 University of Toronto study, ‘Restaurant Meals: Almost a Full Day’s Worth of Calories, Fats, and Sodium,’ found a single meal at chain sit-down restaurants (defined by table service) could average 1,128 calories; 56 per cent of the average daily recommended intake of 2,000 calories.
Canada’s Food Guide recommends males (aged 19 and up) to consume 2,500-3,000 calories in an entire day and females between 1,900-2,300 calories, depending on age and activity level.
The Ontario Medical Association described the province’s state of health as an obesity epidemic in a release from its president Dr. Scott Wooder.
“Ontario’s doctors have long supported menu labeling legislation. Calorie labeling will have an impact on what people eat who are concerned about their health, and we urge that all parties support its quick approval,” he said.
It’s important for people to have some context when choosing meals, and calorie information is a good start as currently Ontario’s consumers play a “guessing game,” Curitti added.
Still, this is only one step to tackling a larger issue that encompasses obesity, she said.
“I really do want to emphasize that one of the big changes in public health is we are really trying to take the focus off weight and put the focus on encouraging healthy lifestyles: eating the healthiest diet you can and being physically active regardless of your weight.”
Putting too much focus on people’s appearances can be counterproductive to promoting healthy lifestyles, she noted.
“Making people feel bad about how they look actually makes it harder for them to eat better diets and be physically fit. By focusing on obesity we focus on those individuals that we can see and we pick on them and we blame them for a lot of problems.”
Canadian data shows that about 0.5 per cent of Canadians follow the food guide, and only 15 per cent of Canadians meet minimum exercise requirements of 150 minutes per week.
This goes to show, we all have some work to do, she said.