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All Clear On Calories?

Yesterday, Canada’s beverage industry announced that they will soon be prominently displaying exactly how many calories are in their products. Not only will calorie labels be clear and identical on the front of all cans and bottles of drinks, juice, and pop but calories will also be prominently displayed on vending machine and on fountain dispensers controlled by the beverage industry.

Notably, the new labeling will mark a significant departure from current practice, in that the front-of-package calories for pop bottles up to 591 mL will display the TOTAL calories rather than just the number of calories per serving size. This means that consumers will no longer have to read the “fine print” that defines “serving size” and will no longer have to hone their math skills to figure out exactly how many calories they are drinking when consuming a whole can or bottle (which is what most of us tend to do).

Only on pop containers larger than 591 mL (which the industry considers as multi-serve packaging), will the front-of-package label state the calories per 355 ml (considered a regular portion size).

An important exception will be made for 100% juices, juice beverages, sports drinks and bottled water: as per Health Canada requirements, juices and fruit drinks will be labelled per 250 ml serving size while sports drinks and bottled waters greater than 750 mL will be considered multi-serve and will be labelled per 500 ml serving size.

With this, Canada’s beverage industry clearly acknowledges and addresses the criticism by many, that in the past, nutrition labels have served more to obfuscate than to enable consumers to readily appreciate just how many calories they are actually consuming from caloric beverages.

While the move of Canada’s beverage industry to be “Clear on Calories” is certainly commendable as a bold step in the right direction, there are important caveats in that it is less than clear whether most Canadians can actually use these caloric labels to better manage their caloric intake.

In other words, unless Canadians have at least a rough idea of how many calories they actually need and how many calories they are getting from the foods they eat, the numbers they will now see on the front of a can of pop or juice is likely to remain largely meaningless.

Indeed, both from my own discussions with patients as well as from the materials on “healthy eating” that I often see being promoted to them, I strongly doubt that the average Canadian has even a remote idea of what these numbers actually mean or how to make any reasonable decisions regarding incorporating these beverages into their overall daily caloric allowance.

This may in part be due to the fact that any meaningful discussion of calories appears to have fallen into “disrepute” given our focus on nutrients and food groups.

Indeed, many from the “nutrition community” have told me that they do not discuss calories with their clients because “healthy” eating should be more about balancing macro- and micro-nutrients than about balancing calories. In fact, it seems that the very notion of paying attention to calories is often dismissed as “calorie counting” with the implication that this is a major step back into the “dark ages” of weight management.

This is where I wholeheartedly disagree with the current nutrition dogma that seems to avoid discussing calories at all costs.

As blogged before, I consider calories (a unit of energy) the very “currency” of the obesity epidemic and am convinced that anyone trying to actively manage their body weight needs at least a rudimentary understanding of caloric balance (I call this “caloric literacy”). This is certainly true, if consumers are to make any sense of the calorie numbers that will now be appearing on their beverages.

Indeed, I would go as far as to state that any attempt to take active control of your weight (whether for weight loss, weight gain, or simply weight maintenance) requires at least a basic understanding of roughly how many calories you are putting into your body (food + beverages) versus how many calories your body actually needs (resting metabolic rate + activity).

This is not denying the importance of also balancing your diet in terms of food groups and nutrients but that is a wholly different question (which unfortunately often gets mixed up in the discussion of weight management).

I am also, by no means implying that the obesity epidemic can be solved by the simple application of the formula: “calories in” minus “calories out” equals “calories stored”.

Of course, while this formula holds true, I am only too aware that the application of this formula in real life, is confounded by the rather complex societal, psychological, and biological factors that ultimately determine both caloric intake and expenditure.

I can certainly assure readers, that I also fully appreciate the evidence showing that our individual metabolisms (which account for about 60% of caloric expenditure) rapidly adapt to any voluntary (or involuntary) changes in caloric balance, which often limit or counteract (some would prefer to use the term sabotage) our conscious efforts to simply eat less and move more.

But despite these caveats, I believe that without some degree of caloric consciousness and caloric literacy, simply putting caloric numbers on front of beverages (no matter how honest and revealing these numbers may be), will remain just one (albeit an important) step towards enabling Canadians to better manage their daily caloric balance.

Perhaps the next step would indeed see governments (and the beverage industry?) stepping forward to educate Canadians on what the calorie numbers actually mean and exactly how Canadians can use this information to manage their weights.

I know that some of my readers may believe that the whole problem could be easily solved by simply taxing (or banning?) all caloric beverages – but this utopian demand would be akin to expecting all Canadians to immediately stop using fossil fuels or to simply go vegan.

I, for one, cannot help but applaud the beverage industry for this bold move and sincerely hope that the packaged food industry as well as restaurants follow suit with similar efforts at caloric transparency.

While I do not believe for a minute that this move alone will immediately translate into a slimmer (or healthier Canada), I do believe that some of my readers will probably find this new clarity on calories helpful.

Perhaps it is now time for a national campaign to promote caloric literacy?

As always, your comments are very much appreciated…

Freising, Germany


  1. I think transparent information regarding caloric intake is absolutely essential.

    Anti dieting fervor isn’t going help obesity either- denying the root cause of the problem seems to be totally medieval.

    The idea that a special mix of macronutrients (or even more astounding, micronutrients) is going to cure obesity verges on magical thinking. I’m not looking to develop scurvy, either- vitamns are important, without a doubt.

    I just wish they posted total caloric information on things like boxes of oreos, or boxes of cereal. This would most definitely start to educate people (quickly!) about the true energy content of the types of things we are eating.
    ….Thanks for the educating post.

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  2. Excellent!!

    1. Put calories in the Canada Food Guide.

    2. Food nutrition labels now give” % daily requirement” for various nutrients, based on an “average” requirement.
    Calories on food nutrition labels should also come with ” % of 2000 cal average daily requirement”.

    A 500 cal serving is 25 % of the 2000 cal “average”. That’s good to know – if my lunch is 25% of an average daily calorie need, that’s about right. If one fancy coffee is 25% of a daily calorie requirement, that’s a warning flag.

    Yes, this is only approximate, but people can take that into account. I, a mildly active middle aged woman, will need fewer calories than my teenage athlete son. We can cope with that! I might find, as I keep track of my calories and my weight, that getting 90% of the 2000 daily calorie requirement keeps me at a steady weight. He will probably need 200 % of the average.

    “% of 2000 cal average daily requirement” instantly puts calories in a more understandable number. It means everything you eat is considered as part of a daily requirement. It also means you would actually identify yourself as needing average or more or less than average calorie intake.
    In weight control, understanding one’s own personal calorie needs, and recognizing how that may differ from the “average” is very helpful. (No more eating something just because everyone else is eating it, without being aware of how it fits into your individual calorie needs.)
    There are dozens of factors determining calorie requirements. To be practical, work backwards, and determine calorie requirements from whatever count keeps the scale where you want it to be.

    In this system, I’d be a 90% – er. I’d recognize I need fewer than average calories to maintain my weight. During the course of a day, I’d add up % daily requirement to 90%, aiming for 30% – 20% – 30% at meals, and a 10% snack.

    Someone else may be a 120% – er, maintaining weight with more than 2000 cal/day, say 30% – 30% – 30% at meals, and 2 15% – 15% snacks.

    3. Don’t think calorie counting is too difficult for most people.

    (I like % of average daily calorie requirement – most people may prefer to simply count calories!)

    No, counting calories won’t work for everybody.
    I have a friend with learning disabilities. She can count to about 10, but adding even small numbers is a mystery to her. Her social worker planned her diet with photographs of meals – my friend copies the photo right down to using a special divided plate to give the right amount of the right food. No counting required.
    However, MOST people can count and add numbers up to 2000 or 3000.

    4. Put calorie counts on food advertising as well as restaurant menus.
    A TV ad should have the calorie count listed on the screen. Print ads should have calorie info included.
    This would make calories part of what people automatically think about.
    Also, eating while watching TV is a problem partly because there are so many foods ads designed to make people hungry. A calorie count would be a reality check.

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  3. I think this is wonderful news for the medical industry. I should keep then buss indefinitely with all the T2 and other metabolic syndrome issues.

    All this because they are not willing to take a stand on diet to treat food induced hyperinsulinemia with no sugar, grains, lubricants, and manufactured eatable products.

    But what do I know

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  4. I think it’s fantastic that beverage producers are being more transparent about their information. I have seen this trend start to pick up in the U.S. too, where sodas and snacks will have two nutrition labels, one for a “typical serving” and one for the “entire package”.

    However, I don’t think that more education is what all obese people need. When it comes right down to it, I know that a salad is healthier than a hot dog, but that doesn’t make me want the hot dog any less. If people are drinking soda because they enjoy or the taste or they crave the taste, more education won’t necessarily make them stop. It can also be counter-productive by making people feel guilty about their food, which tends to make people consume more of that bad food.

    Better labeling is fantastic and the ethical thing to do; food companies should never try to hide or obscure information. But while being honest is a great goal in itself, I don’t think it will be a big factor in weight loss.

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  5. People often know 2000 calories as a ball park number for average daily needs for adults but that may be as far as their knowledge goes. I like Marion Nestle’s guide to food labels even though it’s american

    They list this General Guide to Calories per serving
    40 Calories is low
    100 Calories is moderate
    400 Calories or more is high

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  6. I think knowledge of calories in foods depends on the age group. People over 30 are very aware of the calorie amounts in food. I think its possible that the elderly and the young may not be. Calorie counting was the diet fad of the seventies when the “baby boomers” started dieting. Low fat started in the 80s and low carb was the 90s fad (when the previous two fads failed to produce permanent wieght loss). Regarding sweet drinks specifically though, I really believe the majority of people know that they are bad for you in general in any amount regardles of calories….this info is taught in schools today.

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  7. AMEN!
    I too remain puzzled by the nutritionists’ approach to calories, the fundamental building block to anyone who is seriously engaged in the personal struggle to manage weight gain. Food groups are extremely important in making food choices, but it ultimately depends on controlling amounts of foods( and their calorie equivalents) to match energy needs to obtain and maintain a healthy weight!

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  8. When will they start labeling calories on ALCOHOLIC beverages….

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  9. When I first started to manage my weight versus it managing me–while I was doing the weight wise modules, I had no idea what a serving size was. This was primearily due to massive portion sizes in restaurants. Of which I am one of the quilty ones. One time I got curious and decided to see for myself what a measure of a serving looked like. I had no I dea that I was eating as much as I was. All of a sudden my grocery bill shrank–yes shrank because I was measuring so many items versus guessing at a serving I was using much less food so the items I had lasted longer.

    To help Canadians see what a serving of whatever looks like if restaurants were required to have one appitizer and 5 entres available at Canada food guide sizes there my be more serving size literacy. The food industry caters to peoples wants not there actual needs by letting people see how much a serving is they have a choice to do that way at home; this would be much better education then in schools especially elementry schools where students are often told what to eat and when. The food service industry is not the only culprut, but with so many people eating out they have a huge resposibility.

    Yes, some things I have learned to estamate again to the right amount but most items I still measure just to be sure. I also count calories because a calorie is a defined unit of measure, I also trak fiber and protein. Protein is tends to be higher in calories than other foods and can come from plant sources. If the only ones in the diet industry that worry about calories are the Jenny Craigs and nutristyem people then the dietitians need a brian check. There are lost of nutrient rich foods that provide fewere calories that others that people may not know about. I did not know that fiber could produce a feeling fullness longer than other foods could.

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  10. Here’s my two cents, inspired by this line above: “I know that a salad is healthier than a hot dog, but that doesn’t make me want the hot dog any less”

    Depending on the size of the hotdog and the components of the salad, the hot dog might be the lower-calorie choice! Yes, green salads are healthier in terms of macro- and micro-nutrients, but they aren’t necessarily low-calorie.

    If the choice was between
    1. a large salad containing significant amounts of items such as cheese, full-fat dressing, croutons/crispy stuff, bacon, avocado, nuts/seeds and dried fruit
    2. a moderately-sised (and craving-satisfying) hot dog

    I might choose the hot dog. Knowing the amount of calories in each might help me choose. Of course, if the salad appealed to me, I might choose it, but not eat the full portion presented, based on my calorie needs.

    Psychological factors (eating what I want) and satiety (eating until I feel full, which is likely to occur within fewer calories when eating “healthier” and more balanced meals) also influence food choices and satisfaction with calorie restriction.

    A benefit of most “healthy” foods is that they have fewer calories per (similar-sized) serving than most processed foods. But this isn’t always true, and calorie counts matter.

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  11. Dr. Sharma

    The problem is that there are numerous new things science has turned up about obesity which do not have anything at all to do with people’s behavior or the choices they make. I believe my own doctors is unaware of them.

    Solving obesity is difficult because there are many factors which are not all all addressed in treatment regimes. Factors science has turned up that many physicians are not aware of.



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