Calories made visible

Despite alarming rates of obesity in Canada, you won’t see calorie counts on menu boards any time soon. Unlike the U.S., there’s just no political will for it.

by Ken MacQueen

ERIC THAYER / REUTERS

Baseball is a numbers game, and few teams produce more impressive stats than the New York Yankees. Their new stadium opened in 2009 and promptly delivered the team’s 27th World Series win. To stroll amid the sights  and smells of the food vendors is to see another legacy at play, one that will linger for a lifetime in the hearts of Yankee fans.

Nathan’s Famous foot-long beef hotdog clocks in at 500 calories before condiments. That’s one-quarter of the roughly 2,000 calories you need in a day. At Moe’s, the “nachos supreme” set you back 1,410 calories. Elsewhere, a jumbo popcorn is 1,484 calories, and the souvenir bucket is 2,473. Add a couple of beers (286 calories for a large Beck’s) and you see why, when the Yanks moved from their circa-1920s stadium, they widened the seats by as much as two inches.

In the Big Apple you know in a New York minute what your food costs—in dollars and in calories. Both numbers have equal prominence on the menus and menu boards of the city’s chain restaurants—by order of the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It’s an attempt to stem a frightening increase in obesity, an epidemic also killing Canadians and compromising the health care system. Unlike in Canada, there is political will in the U.S. to take action. By next spring, the Obama administration’s sweeping health care reform bill requires U.S. restaurant chains to post calorie counts on menu boards­, drive-throughs and vending machines. It was one of the few non-contentious parts of the bill—a recognition by legislators, and the American restaurant industry, of an anti-obesity measure whose time has come.

Not so in Canada. Don’t expect to find a quick, easy calorie count on either the restaurant or national political menu anytime soon—despite what the Public Health Agency of Canada calls “an alarming increase” in obesity and attendant health problems. And even though measures similar to the U.S. law are endorsed by the Dietitians of Canada, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, the Ontario Medical Association, by weight-loss specialists, by the B.C. government and by Dr. Kellie Leitch, a federal adviser on healthy children and youth.

Leitch’s 2008 report, Reaching for the Top, dealt extensively with overweight youth. The prominent display of calories at restaurants was among her recommendations to then health minister Tony Clement. As a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon she sees in her own clinic a “frightening” increase in Type 2 diabetes among adolescents, the result of poor diet, little exercise and excess calories. “We will have a generation of children that is projected to not live as long as their parents,” she told Maclean’s. She expects the government to eventually act on some of her obesity recommendations but so far she’s heard nothing.

Lobbying against a calorie law is the well-connected Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA), which purports to know better. Singling out calories “doesn’t meet the needs of our customers,” says Ron Reaman, a vice-president with the CRFA. “Our customers have a wide array of dietary concerns.” Limiting the menu information to calories wouldn’t help those worried about things like carbohydrates, sodium or trans fat, he says: “Never mind allergies.” You can’t put all that on the menu, the thinking goes, so none of it belongs.

Instead, the association has a voluntary “nutrition information program.” Some 33 participating restaurant chains provide an array of nutritional information in varying formats and degrees of visibility. Most have extensive information on company websites; others have brochures or, in the case of McDonald’s, descriptions in exhaustive detail on the back of tray liners. “We believe that this is a responsible approach that responds to the needs of our customers,” says Reaman. “We think it is actually a better approach than what they’re doing in the U.S.”

“Ron’s full of it, but that’s his job,” says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, which specializes in non-surgical weight management. “It’s a ridiculous assertion to suggest that people are looking for [all] that information,” says Freedhoff, also the author of the lively obesity website weightymatters.ca. “When we go shopping for things we look at price tags before we buy them so we can determine whether they’re worth it to us,” he says. “When we eat things, the currency of our weight is calories.” Certainly estimating calories isn’t always intuitive.

Even without checking Kelsey’s restaurant website you might guess their fully loaded nachos (at 2,160 calories that’s a day’s worth of eating) had best be shared. But would you think a chicken quesadilla and accompanying rice top out at 1,130 calories? Or that, at Casey’s Bar & Grill, a vegetarian pad Thai is 740 calories, a side of sweet potato fries is 760, but an order of one-piece fish and regular chips is just 330 calories?

Reaman claims the restaurant association’s position is backed by the Dietitians of Canada. “They’ve been on the record in the past in suggesting a calorie-only approach to communicating nutrition information is probably essentially misleading,” he says.

In fact, while the dietitians want a full spectrum of nutritional information available, their association endorses calorie counts on menus. “Our rationale is that anything that makes the healthier choice the easier choice is what we should be supporting,” says Judy Sheeshka, a dietitian and an associate professor at the University of Guelph. She researches food and nutrition policy, and wrote the position paper on the issue.

Reaman says the CRFA’s information program meets public needs, and Health Canada seems inclined to agree. “We continue to closely monitor this voluntary initiative,” said spokesman Philippe Laroche, “to determine if a model for regulatory compliance could be developed that would be both practical and enforceable.” Critics, however, say the program is of limited use. Sheeshka dispatched her students to participating Guelph restaurants. In many cases the information was only on websites. In others, front-line staff had to find managers before a binder or a handout was produced. “Sometimes it was posted on a wall outside a washroom or some obscure place where you wouldn’t look before you ordered,” she says.

If the method of educating the public is in dispute, there’s no doubt North Americans need to curb their eating habits. Obesity rates have doubled in the U.S. in 30 years and Canadians waddle not far behind. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. One-third are obese, defined as having a body mass index (the relationship of weight to height) of 30 or more. In Canada, one-quarter of Canadian adults are obese and many more are overweight. “We have a country where it’s abnormal to have a healthy body weight,” says Freedhoff. Even among those aged 12 to 17, some 26 per cent are overweight or obese. The estimated cost of “obesity-related chronic conditions” in 2005: $4.3 billion, says the Public Health Agency of Canada.

In the U.S., just three years ago, the National Restaurant Association in the U.S. was as opposed to posted calorie counts as its Canadian counterpart. The industry sued the New York health department in a failed bid to overturn its calorie law and threatened to sue other jurisdictions that followed suit. But when the calorie law got bipartisan support in the national health reform package, and first lady Michelle Obama began her campaign against childhood obesity, the industry had a dramatic conversion on the drive-through to Damascus. It decided one federal law was preferable to a growing hodgepodge of regional regulations.

The same arguments that the Canadian association uses (ineffective, impossible to implement, too calorie-focused, too confusing) were abandoned overnight. “The passage of this provision is a win for consumers and restaurateurs,” American restaurant association president Dawn Sweeney said this spring. “We know the importance of providing consumers with the information they want and need, no matter where in the country they are dining.”

Advocates like Bill Jeffery, national coordinator for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, say Canadian restaurateurs are delaying the inevitable. Packaged food in stores has had nutrition labels for years, he says. “Their customers are making informed choices. It’s not going to be too long before they’re saying to government, ‘Why is the restaurant industry getting a free ride?’ ”

In Ontario, New Democrat MPP France Gélinas is reintroducing a private member’s bill calling for calorie labelling. Her previous attempt—opposed by the CRFA—died when the Ontario legislature prorogued in March. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has said the federal government should take the lead on obesity issues, a position supported by Ida Chong, B.C.’s minister of healthy living and sport. Meanwhile, though, she says her department has had preliminary talks with restaurants about a sodium reduction strategy and prominent calorie displays “very similar” to the U.S. law.

If the federal government doesn’t take the initiative, B.C. is prepared to act alone, she told Maclean’s. With the U.S. taking the lead, the job is much easier, she said. “People will realize the sky will not fall if you do this.”

If so, calorie counts on menus may soon be as accepted as the no-smoking signs on restaurants and bars—another initiative the CRFA once opposed.




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Calories made visible

  1. If people can't figure out that scarfing a hot dog, nachos and a few beers is burdening their bodies with excess calories, it's implausible to think a few charts will pierce their thick skulls.

    Or, more probably, people do know when they're eating crap – and too much of it – AND THEY DON"T CARE. Unlike many poor lifestyle choices, gorging oneself like a pig tends to provide fairly tangible feedback (eat too much for too long, you get fatter, at which point you have a decision to make).

    Public information campaigns are a good idea. And if food manufacturers or restaurants are somehow lying about their food, or sneaking harmful ingredients in, that should be regulated. Heck, you can make an argument for seeing parents charged with neglect for letting their kids become obese.

    But forcing restaurants to post calories is a needless state intervention that will do nothing at all (unless you count making some officials and bureacrats feel like they're doing something effective). If people decide this is important information, then they will patronize establishments that provide it, and they will not spend money at places that do not.

    If we really want to nip this sort of thing in the bud, maybe our health care system should require individuals to bear some of the cost for lifestyle related illnesses. Not that I really want to go down that road, but It would be a more honest and effective intervention.

    • So, you're in favour of repealing food labeling laws?

      Putting calorie amounts in the menu is hardly burdensome, and will provide people with a reminder of just how unhealthy some of these meals can be. Someone may naively order a salad, thinking they are making a healthy choice, not realizing that all the dressings, cheese, etc. are making it fairly unhealthy. A second order effect would likely be restaurants making small changes to their recipes that could substantially reduce the calories their meals contain.

      • Everyone keeps citing salad. Do we really have evidence that there's folks out there eating nothing but salad, perplexed that they remain obese?

        Remember, we're being sold this intervention as necessary to combat obesity, diabetes, etc. In a world of limited resources, we need programs that are defensible with results. Otherwise, we risk wasting money to make ourselves simply feel better, and we risk diminishing the credibility of health policy in its entirety (people simply tune out, for starters). Why can't folks simply demand this information from restaurants, and boycott those restaurants that don't provide it?

        As for the 'burdensome' nature of forcing the calculation and sharing of data: no single program is too much (though these sorts of things are unevenly difficult for smaller, independent restaurants to cope with, and tend to push us further toward mega-chain restaurants and producers), but the aggregate effect on business can be considerable. I'm not saying businesses have the right to do anything they want, just that there are costs to policies like this and we need to judge them carefully.

        • Overall I'm quite sympathetic to your concerns that this change will not singlehandedly cause Canada to become a nation of slim and trim citizens.

          Why can't folks simply demand this information from restaurants, and boycott those restaurants that don't provide it?

          I think that the practical outcome of the ask / boycott approach is that a fair percentage of the people who would truly welcome the calorie count information will end up eating at the restaurant without the info that they wanted, and because the number of people who will actually walk out will be quite low, there will be little market pressure to comply. Maybe that's the way it should be, I'm not sure about that.

          • Do we even know if restaurant eating is a prime factor in obesity rates?

          • Good question…and I'm still undeicded on the idea.

            Seems to me that this issue (obesity rates) is typical of many issues that we face today, in that it likely does not have one single, easy to implement solution, with minimal unintended consequences. (The easy problems were solved years ago, now we are left with the tough nuts, so to speak.)

            And even though this might not have much direct affect (assuming meals out isn't a huge factor), there could be indirect benefis, such as increased awareness that might transfer into other eating habits.

            So yes, probably not the silver bullet to our obesity troubles, but possibly a small part of a larger effort. OTOH, would the overall effort be worth it? I'm not sure about that either.

      • I agree. When I went to check out the calorie and fat content of most of the flavoured drinks at coffee shops last year, I vowed never to order anything that contained anything other than coffee and skim milk ever again. Many drinks, although not very filling at all, contain as many calories as a small meal (or rather, a large dessert). There are a few things that I wouldn't have ordered if the nutritional information were upfront instead of something I had to search for on a website after the fact.

    • It's a low-cost measure to implement (compliance is likely to be pretty much voluntary without much enforcement effort once it passes as it's something trivial for the restaurants to do, it's not worth NOT doing it). And it is likely to have an impact to get people thinking about such things. Even if you don't eat out often, if when you do eat out and see that your cheeseburger and fries is 1500 calories it might clue you in to what you're eating at home as well. Possibly more significant yet is seeing just how much food you CAN still eat while staying under your daily limit by changing your food choices. Lean meat and vegetables are incredibly low in calories before you dress them up. Prominent labelling, even if it's not where you eat everyday forces people to leave a state of blissful ignorance. Prominent labelling of sodium is perhaps as much or more of a concern considering many prepared items are over your daily intake in 1 meal.

  2. I disagree with the previous comment. Calories for items such as nachos or wings or beer may be obvious, in that you would expect a great deal, but not all foods are so easy to judge. In the italian restaurant, are all the pastas the same? in an indian restaurant are all the curries equal? etc.

    Adding a calorie count will help as part of an informed decision, for example while people know that salads are good, I know many would be surprised to learn that some salads with a dressing pack as many calories as a burger.

    By highlighting calories on a menu people may prefer to pick low calorie options and this will in turn lead to encouraging the development of low calorie foods. There are many types of food that would benefit from the usage of low calorie ingredients, as it stands because taste and cost are the only factors, restaurants often go for the most high calorie ingredients, such as full cream etc.

    • But can't folks educate themselves about the calorie content of cream, butter and the like? Can't they figure out that a bulging waistline probably means they need to cut down on quantity?

      Think about how many people are duped by "lower" calorie, fat and sodium offerings by restaurants and manfacturers. Thirty percent less salt in my Campbell's soup doesn't mean there's still not too much sodium in it. Half the fat salad dressing still needs to be used in moderation (and often introduces other chemicals into the body that might be worse than simply eating less of "real" foods). Information is only useful to those who make good, skeptical use of it.

      Do you seriously think that restaurants posting calories will have a measurable effect on obesity and diabetes?

      • It's not actually always that easy.

        As a French, when I first came to Canada, I mostly gained weight because like the article explains, I didn't know how to estimate calories. I followed the "French commonsense diet": eat more veggies than Nutella, eat bread but go easy on the mayonnaise, have some dessert but a small portion.

        Guess what? This doesn't work in North America because some food are not just "fat", they are super fat.

        I discovered that some items like soups (which I would spontaneously think it's healthy) could be like 1,000 calories. Pasta can be super fatty too, because the amount of cream butter and the like used here is easily double what is used in most countries around the world.

        I lost the weight I gained very easily and naturally once I realized I must read the labels here. Let's stop thinking people are just dumb idiot who don't know how to eat – the industry doesn't exactly make our life easy.

    • With Indian food, it is possible to make a butter chicken curry that is extremely calorie-heavy, while it can also be made reasonably healthy. It may not be that easy to tell which is which, even, based on eating.

      • And if you're eating butter chicken curry from the same restaurant daily, and gaining weight, wouldn't you try eating there a little less often?

        No single meal determines our health. I have yet to see evidence that folks are out there are actively trying to make very healthy food decisions, while nevertheless succumbing to obesity and related illnesses. It just doesn't happen.

        • Unless they sabotage themselves.

  3. This is an idea whose time has come, and for once we in the States aren't lagging. It isn't about hurting the food industry, but rather basic consumer protection. Every other industry is required to publish product information, and the restaurant industry ought to be held to the same standard. As a coeliac I'd like to see allergy information, but I know better than to ask for jack from this industry.

  4. I live in NYC where the food label laws are in place. It's really good information to have. Of course you know buckets of buttered popcorn and beer are high in calories, but you would be shocked – SHOCKED – at the calories in some seemingly innocuous foods. A slice of lemon loaf at Starbucks? Almost as many calories as a Big Mac. Tiny crab cake appetizer at Ted Turner's? You do not want to know.

  5. So how do we explain that this apparent growth in obesity has occurred while food labeling has been introduced.

    If labeling supermarket icecream and chips as being hugely calorific didn't work, why will labeling restaurant icecream and chips?

    This is just nanny state make-work, and we will all pay a little extra for this nonsense.

    As an aside, my father was a GP. Whenever fat people would come to see him about weight loss issues, he would solemnly write a prescription: "Eat less. Exercise more."

    • Your father simply proved that just because you're a doctor, it doesn't mean you're smart.

      I suppose you're multimillionairres because you "bought low and sold high" in the stock market too.

      Condescension is certainly not an endearing trait for a doctor.

  6. I'm a Canadian living in the US and I have to say that the menu postings are extremely useful.

    I'm pretty slender and I'm definitely not one to count my calories but when I walked into Panera and noticed how much a cookie cost in calories, I was sincerely shocked. I actually would have ordered the cookie (it's 99 cents if you purchase a drink with your combo) had I not found out that it was 500 calories!!!!!! I had assumed that as a 'snack', it probably came in at 200 calories.

    FYI: My combo was a half mediterranean salmon salad and cup of soup + apple … sounds light right? It came in at a total of 500 calories. Had I combined this with the cookie (for a snack), my lunch would have been a whopping 1000 calories.

    Point is, you just do not know what restaurants put in their food. You think you're ordering light but you could be completely wrong.

    I also read in another article that since they have implemented this in Texas, people are choosing lower calorie meals.

    I think this regulation would go a long way in enabling people at least choose a healthier lifestyle.

    • I agree. Let's look at how this information affects behaviour. If it helps significantly, let's do it.

  7. I’m in favour of it.

    It’s not just the types of foods, it’s the quantities that they’re served in that really trip people up. Posting calories will help folks know the portion. Or if something is loaded with extra crap that it doesn’t need (high calorie content on grilled chicken – you know something is going on there, don’t order it. Without calorie postings, you have no idea that they add sauces and glazes that are that bad for you).

    I’m usually fairly frustrated whenever I try to find nutritional content at any kind of place out. They hide it by the bathroom, on the back of papers on the tray (that you don’t get until after you order at fast food places) or online. It’s just not easily accessible.

  8. Our problem is simple:

    1) We eat food that is much too "Calorie Dense".
    2) We eat too much of it.
    3) We eat at the wrong times… late at night, before bed, rather than earlier in the AM.
    4) We exercise too little, and for too short a time period. And we have no incentive to exercise.
    5) We have too much salt "sodium" pre-added to out food for us.
    6) We have too much sugar pre-added to our food for us.
    7) We use High Fructose Corn Syrup in everything and far too much of it.
    8) We use way too many additives, both in terms of how many different additives, and how much of any one additive we add.

    Labels are nice, but are not a solution. Education might help, and legislating what goes into the food might help, but they are not total solutions either. People have to CARE about what they are eating, and how obese they are first. There is no penalty to being obese. Rather there are many rewards: More room on planes and buses. Instant disability pensions. Pity and sympathy. Free food baskets. An chance to go on reality TV. Who the heck wants to be thin, and live longer, and stay in this messed up world? Live fast and hard, get all that you can while you can, and then exit. This is what we are taught (and very well, I might add) by TV and by our so called leaders and influencers.

    No solution is a panacea. Rather we must apply a selected number of solutions. But first, we have to get people to care about themselves. And today, most of us are either too rushed, or too leisurely to care. We use food as a drug.

  9. a pointless debate because food science is clueless about obesity and its cause hartsmartliving.com
    Carbohydritis, the new definition.

  10. On the surface, this idea seems to be useful; however, why the need to legislate? In an interview on CP24 MPP France Gelinas admitted that this is just the first step in the "war on obesity". Next she hopes that "sin" taxes will be introduced on high calorie items and the health insurance rates will be increased for those who are overweight. Just another hand in the publics purse????
    If the government really wants to help people with their weight issues, they will lower or cut taxes on all whole grains, fruits, vegetables, chicken and fish in the grocery stores. Throughout history societies have gone through weight changes…remember the Ruben period? The pendulum will begin to swing the other way when parents, insurance companies and governments allow children to play again. Currently in Ontario, children are not permitted to run on the playgrounds at school, nor are they permitted to slide on ice, slide down hills, play tag…etc etc etc. People have become so afraid of children getting hurt, that they have essentially wiped out their ability to get any physical exercise at recess. Extracurricular activities have virtually been wiped out by litigious parents, causing the insurance rates to go through the roof and convince teachers they're not worth the personal risk. The sad result is that there is an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease beginning in children as young as nine. This is the first generation of children that are expected to die at a younger age than their parents. Because, over protective parents and insurance companies have created a culture of fear and "safety", our kids can't move. It is not helpful for insurance companies and people like MPP Gelinas to create discrimination, resentment and anger toward the overweight in Canada. Education NOT Legislation!!!!!

    • WOW! You're RIGHT! Congrats!
      You actually know your history, and know current events….
      And you even figured out that your government is trying to gnaw in to your life some more, and tell you what to do, while simultaneously reaching into your wallet. Oh, don't get me wrong, we have a wonderful health care system here.
      But we also have a very sneaky government that loves helping our physical fitness by removing all that weight from our wallets. Paper money is so HEAVY! Loonies and Toonies – and the soon to come Fivey – are light.
      Then too, they want to take away the penny, and raise prices anywhere from 1 to 4 cents on everything. WHY?
      Here is why.
      You go to Canadian Tire. You buy 4 items: One went up 4 cents, one went up 3 cents, one went up 2 cents, and one went up a penny… as they round up to the nearest nickel. So now the price is up 10 cents. and with our kind loving 13% HST (at least in Ontario), that is 0.013 cents extra tax. Which of course they will round up to… the nearest nickel.
      Woo Hoo!
      So to generate more revenue, to give themselves another 40% pay hike, they need to tax that most sinful of extravagances, food. If it costs you more, you will eat less, they figure.
      Basic economics: Supply, Demand, and Price Curves.
      SIMPLE ANSWER: Why not just help people get fit? Then people will not be overweight.
      But that answer, gives them no new tax revenue (to waste on inquiries that resolve nothing)… That's Why!

  11. Hi friends,
    Your style of presentation is very impressive. The meaningful contribution of your mind reflects on those people who are looking for calories made visible. I would like to tweet on it and keep spying at every moment you blogging.

  12. Having calories on the menu is useful for people who care about their calorie intake, it helps them to keep track. Some of the healthy food you think actually has a lot of hidden calories that you wouldn't realize.

  13. Although there have been exceptions (where researchers have tracked people in poorer neighborhoods…
    http://blog.ultimatefatburner.com/2009/10/calorie… )

    … for the most part, posting the caloric value of menu choices does appear to help consumers make smarter selections, and consume fewer calories. See…
    http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/weightloss/20
    http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/starbucks.html

    I agree with the posting of caloric values and with many of the points made by previous contributors. In essence…

    1) Many people don't have any idea of the caloric value of the foods they choose. While many bad choices are quite obvious, some are not.

    2) Most people have lives to live – they aren't always thinking about calories, and various maladies associated with the continuous over-consumption of them. So seeing calorie-labeling on a lunch-fare menu board is a nice way to jog our collective memories.

    To address an earlier poster's comment that such actions are indicative of a "nanny state" and we're all going to have to foot the bill for such a venture I'd say…

    In Canada, with universal health care, we are ALREADY footing the bill for continued bad eating habits. If labeling menu options works – and only if it does mind you – we should embrace it, as it is entirely possible it will reduce health care costs in the long run – especially if constant reminders help folks become more conscious of ALL the meal choices they make.

    Yes, there are some folks who don't care and never will. You can't worry about them; you have to concentrate on the people who simply don't know. And there plenty of them…

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