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Ontario Puts Calories on Menus – But Will Consumers Know How to Use This Information?



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According to media reports, the Ontario Government plans legislation to put calories on menus (at least in chain restaurants).

I have long argued for calories on menus. Not hidden in a confusing nutrition label with percentages and serving sizes and other complicated stuff that most people don’t understand. Just give me a number – even an approximation – a ball-park will do – round up or down to the next hundred for all I care.

No one is asking anyone to obsess about calories or pull out the scales and measuring cups – a couple of extra calories here and there are not the problem. This is not about turning people into bean counters – the goal is calorie awareness.

The problem exists when people underestimate calories by hundreds or even thousands – after all, like it or not, calories are the currency of weight management.

Will putting these number on menus prevent obesity? Of course not. There is enough research showing that most people have no clue as to what calories are or how many they need, let alone that caloric needs can change dramatically the moment they lose weight. But, some people do care and they (me included) will appreciate seeing these numbers.

Others will simply ignore them, after all, the key determinants of what people eat are taste, cost and convenience.

For those who care about calories, the legislation makes sense – but are these really the people who need this information the most?

For the many, who don’t really understand or care about calories, simply putting numbers on menus may do little.

For them, a calorie literacy campaign may well be in order.

What do you think about calories on menus? Very much appreciate your comments.

@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB

22 Comments

  1. My hubby recently read an article on that topic, if memory serves from the use in NYC. From what I recall that he imparted, except for McDonalds which was actually accurate and consistent (which stuck in my head though the last time I ate from one was over a quarter century ago), chain restaurants tended to underestimate by something in the low double digits in percentages and portions varied — usually with more given than the chains accounted for in caloric numbers — with location and server. Never-the-less customers found that being able to compare the dishes was useful in making choices.

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  2. I think that putting nutritional information on menus is a great thing. Many times I have gone into a restaurant and ordered a salad, thinking that it was a healthy, safe choice, only to go home and look up the nutritional info online and find that I would’ve been better off ordering pizza! I have made wiser choices seeing calorie counts and would like to see it done Nation wide.

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  3. Among the reasons Panera is my favorite chain is because it gives calorie counts. Having a ballpark on the calories, for comparison’s sake, is helpful.

    You have said (and you do so here) that you want our comments. I would suggest you disable the ranking and rating functions. How our fellow commenters view us is irrelevant, and negative ratings (especially when we’re making neutral or upbeat comments) can make one (me) say, “Ah pfft. Why bother? Bunch of anonymous, cowardly Negative Nellies here.”

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  4. “The goal is calorie awareness”. I fully agree!

    The problem. however, is given by the fact the INDIVIDUAL DAILY caloric requirement differs from person to person, even with similar age, gender, job, lifestyle, behaviors, physical activity etc!

    This is actually what we are trying to make clear with our book: Eating healthy and dying obese… elucidation of an apparent paradox” and the related program “Calogenetic balance”! http://www.vitasanas.ch/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/poster-only-eco-liverpool-ok.pdf

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  5. I love the idea. lt builds awareness for everyone. Now if only there was an easy nutritional density scale to go with it so people can understand tradeoffs,

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  6. The people, like myself, who are acutely sensitive about the foods we eat, do not really need calorie counts at restaurants. We know enough about nutrition to choose wisely and to question our waiters in detail about our choices. We are comfortable with asking for substitutes and restaurants have almost always been quite willing to work with us. The people who really need to know the calories in their food are the ones least likely to pay any attention to them. In addition, there is a great deal of evidence that shows that the calorie counts in all, but the most “pre-packaged” fast food places are completely off the mark. At most, they provide a comparison or a reasonable guess. I can do better with my eyes and my own brain. I worry that by pushing ‘nanny like” public policies we are actually infantilizing our people. I will always fall on the side of providing information, and empowering people, but this measure seems expensive and unnecessary. After all, can you imagine showing up in a fine restaurant in Paris and getting a menu with calories on it? 🙂 Education, empowerment and a reevaluation of the place of food in our lives is the only possible route. Nudging people toward the right behavior through government polices always has unintended consequences. History is replete with the horrors that good intentions have wrought. (In this case, I don’t expect to see any real horrors, yet the benefits will be quite elusive and the cost great).

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  7. I think this is a great idea!! For people who try to be conscientious of what they eat, it will be helpful to know approximately how many calories are contained within each restaurant meal. Sure it won’t solve obesity, but at least the information is readily available for those who want the information. And the information certainly isn’t harming anyone by being on the menu. The only people who might readily object to the calorie labelling are those who are afraid of loosing a profit if people find out how high calorie their items actually are. And yes, of course some people are going to ignore the information, but that’s not a reason not to include the information. Not putting the calorie information on the menu because some people will ignore it (even though some people would love to see the information on there), is sort of like saying, “well we could put ‘no parking’ signs in front of bus stops, but since some people will continue to ignore the signs, we shouldn’t even bother”.

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  8. What I like about this is that it forces restaurants to be accountable and hopefully consider what they’re serving. Will they have a conscience?

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  9. I have to say that while I’m not really a calorie-counter, I do appreciate calorie counts at Starbucks. It doesn’t mean that I won’t eat a slice of lemon pound cake if I really want it, but it does mean that I will put that in perspective as to whether it’s worth it on that particular day at that particular time. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I try to use various nutritional counts not as a straitjacket, or to rule out any particular food, but as an evaluative tool to keep how I eat in a balance that keeps me healthy and happy.

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  10. I appreciate having nutritional information available when possible. For those who don’t need or want it, fine; for those who are following diet programs such as Weight Watchers, or keeping a diet journal, it is helpful to have the facts. Even if they’re not absolutely accurate, a ballpark figure is useful. Once you have the information, you can convert that into Weight Watchers points if that is what you are doing, and can plan what fits best into your needs at the moment. Or, if you are diet journaling, it can help you to figure out where your trouble areas are and help you to make better choices. Information is empowering.

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  11. As someone who has worked with people recovering from eating disorders and currently works in primary care, I see two very different sides to this idea. People working to keep their weight under control may appreciate the extra information as another tool in their weight-management toolbox. People working to eat “normally” without obsessing about calorie counts don’t have a chance when the numbers are staring back at them from a menu.

    I believe in helping without harming. Let’s help the majority by making the numbers available, without harming by forcing everyone to see the numbers.

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  12. I, too, agree that having caloric values on restaurant menus would be of great value. When I’m planning to go out I typically check online for these prior to my visit. When it’s a spur of the moment decision, it can be very difficult to accurately determine even a ballpark value. ex. some salads even w/o the dressing. It would delight me to see this policy throughout Canada and America.

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  13. I’d welcome the calorie count on my menu. I can generally ballpark fairly accurately after years of watching my caloric intake, but I know many who aren’t nearly as good at it. As for many people not knowing what a calorie is or what it means, how many of us didn’t read a word of French when that first went on our labels, yet no longer have to turn a can of “petit pois” around on the supermarket shelf to know that the other side says ‘peas’. Maybe, over time we will learn a thing or two. I’d especially like to see calorie counts on the beverage lists. My kids teenage friends tend to drink an enormous number of calories with very little insight into their behaviour.

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  14. I think it is dreadfully unfair to suggest that “those who most need the calorie counts are the least likely to pay attention to them” as Elina does above. There are many many people who fit into the area between being “acutely sensitive” and oblivious about nutrition. I think it’s a good idea. I like to know how much of my monetary budget I will spend on a given dish; it’d also be nice to know how much of my caloric budget it will cost me too.

    But we might need some talented typographers to figure out how to present the numbers so that they don’t overwhelm the experience of dining out.

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  15. I like having the information available and will often share something I especially want to keep the calories in line with my plan for the day. Something I’d love to see changed is the “% of daily requirement” on labels. Just tell me how much there is! I know what my needs are, and they aren’t always the same as someone else – especially when they coyly say,”based on a 2000 calorie diet.” As someone who maintains 185# on 12-1400 calories a day but needs 28g of iron, telling me that something contains 5% of “somebody’s” requirement is totally useless. “1/2 cup contains 2g iron” THAT’S useful information.

    While I’m fantasizing – how about educating people a bit on how to order off-menu? The dietitian I saw at the WW clinic (thank you Carlene) totally changed how I order. Now, instead of ordering a bunch of stuff I don’t need or want, I read through the whole menu, get the server on my side and order what I actually want to eat. A side of steamed broccoli topped with cheese makes a great lunch at the Spagetti Factory, kid’s size teriyaki salmon and steamed seasonal veg at Moxies, a side salad with grilled fish or chicken most anywhere, chicken fajitas without the tortillas, the innards of a tasty sounding wrap without the wrap part – all it takes is being polite and appreciative. (I also tip well)

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  16. Let me begin by acknowledging all the thoughtful comments so far, the group here is very knowledgeable and passionate about the subject of weight management. I am in favor of including calorie counts on menus.

    Why?

    It helps those who have made a commitment and done their “homework,” those who depend on these numbers to make healthy nutritional choices and manage their food intake. I have no problem with including “data” as part of a healthy weight management program (this is entire subject on its own and beyond this discussion.)

    Secondly, it can create awareness for patrons of the restaurant and, as importantly, the restaurant owner, manager, cook and servers. For me, awareness is where change begins, awareness creates choice and committing to healthy choices is where change happens, the good stuff!

    The Restaurant Industry

    I am hopeful that including calorie counts will have a positive impact on the restaurant industry, where restaurants begin to become a small part of the solution to overweight and obesity.

    Who knows, more so called “healthier” choices will begin to pop up on menus across Ontario because its just good for business. Good business sense aside, I have no problem reading a menu that includes a double cheeseburger, hand cut fries and milkshakes along side items like organic quinoa, corn and black bean salad with tofu and bottled water, do you?

    Frankly, if we continue to make better menu choices at restaurants more often, the market will accommodate, it always does and is doing now. We might not like the rate of change at the moment.

    For the vast majority of us, weight management is a long term, lifetime commitment to our health and to ourselves. Calorie counts is just another piece of what I call “the weight management puzzle.”

    Cheers!

    Rob

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  17. Overall I think including calorie counts in restaurants is a good idea, it’s managing how this information is conveyed and what form this information takes that is difficult.

    Yes there will be people that don’t care but in coming years the entire food industry will only come under more pressure to make people aware of what’s in the food they eat as levels of obesity continue to increase.

    While calorie counts act as a useful indicator, what would be even more useful is how the protein, carbohydrates and fats in the food make up these calories. An extreme example being eating 300 calories of tuna and salad for a meal vs 300 calories of doughnuts. Calories aren’t everything.

    But then comes much larger questions. This topic seems predominantly based around the fast food industry, or paper based menus.

    But how long until you can walk into a restaurant and perhaps there is a tablet built into the table you sit at where you can freely browse 2 versions of the restaurant’s menu. One which includes the calorie counts and nutritional breakdowns of all the food on the menu and one with just the food list and no calorie breakdown. Something like this gives people the option of seeing the calories without forcing it on them.

    To sum up before this gets too far off topic, I believe calorie counts are a good idea in restaurants, particularly fast food places but education on the topic is equally important.

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  18. In Australia, we can go into a major international fast food company and find a poster on the wall with all the calorie contents for all the menu items. This was imposed by legislation. I find it very helpful in understanding what a particular choice might mean in terms of calorie intake. It has also been helpful in educating my daughter about making lower calorie choices – for example that cappuccino is a better choice than that thickshake.

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  19. Some of the messages above make a lot of sense. Just because some people are calorie-conscious doesn’t mean everyone needs to be, and for some people, such as those with anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia, seeing a calorie count can be like walking into a snake pit. As a Type 1 diabetic with an eating disorder, I personally would prefer to know what the amounts of fat, protein, fiber and carbs are, not the calorie counts. For me, it’s much more important to make sure I’m getting enough protein and fiber, and to know how much insulin to dose for the carbs in a meal than to know the calories. In my opinion, what matters is good nutrition, not calories.

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  20. I would love it, especially for the dessert menu. The dessert menu is where some us us need extra help staying rational.

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