What menu calorie counts don't tell us

How to get beyond numbers that have nothing to do with nutrition

Canada has a mounting weight problem. In 2016, a senate report (PDF) announced an “obesity crisis in this country,” in which 2/3 of adults and 1/3 of children are overweight. It measured the financial strain on health care in the billions.

It also recommended that “Government and industry must give citizens the means and motivation to make informed lifestyle choices.” This January, Ontario responded with the Healthy Menu Choices act. It requires large restaurant chains to post calorie counts with menu items – information some locations now share across Canada.

Personal Fitness Trainer nutrition instructor Karena Apps Eccles cautiously praises the move. “Giving knowledge does not automatically mean you’re going to change behaviour,” she says. “But it’s always the first step – you can’t change behaviour if you don’t have the knowledge or awareness.”

But what may carry more weight in the the struggle for healthier diets is the story behind the numbers. “Nutrition and calories are 2 different things,” says Apps Eccles. Here, she explains what really adds up to wise choices for Canadians dining out.

chocolate and red wineWhat’s in a calorie?

A calorie is the measure of the energy content of food, the needs for which vary according to a person's age and lifestyle.

For example, Health Canada estimates that a very active 17-year-old female needs 2,400 calories per day, whereas a sedentary 40-year-old male needs just 1,800. If you regularly eat more than needed, the body stores the excess energy as fat.

But those numbers say nothing of the source of those calories, Apps Eccles says, which is the key to making healthy choices.

“If my calorie intake is 2,000 calories a day, I could get that in chocolate and red wine. It’d be a hell of a day, but a very poor nutritional day.”

In fact, she doesn’t like to see people counting calories. “I would rather you’d count servings. Then you know if you’re balanced, did you get variety, did you get everything in moderation.”

Half of our meals should be vegetablesYour guide to health

 Apps Eccles believes the Canada Food Guide is still the path to balance and moderation, “as flawed and perfect as it is.”

She’s pleased the guide is undergoing revisions to reflect the nation’s cultural diversity, but also that its core recommendations for a balanced diet will remain in place.

Compared to the ideal meal, “Our animal-based protein servings are way too big,” says Apps Eccles.

“We don’t do enough vegetable. We don’t do enough whole grain.”

Canadians eat twice as much salt as they shouldThe real numbers to watch

Major restaurant chains (McDonald's and Starbucks are good examples) posts the nutritional breakdown of their products online or at locations in print, giving diners the information Apps Eccles feels is essential to healthy eating.

Here are a few aspects of our food that she recommends monitoring:

  • Sodium – Canadians’ salt intake is “startlingly high,” says Apps Eccles. Health Canada notes that we eat about 3,400 milligrams a day – double what we should. This can lead to high blood pressure, it says, “a major risk factor for stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.”
  • Saturated fat “The current recommendation for saturated fat is as low as you can possibly make it,” says Apps Eccles. This includes trans fats, which can similarly increase the risk of heart disease by contributing to arterial plaque. Limit such fats to about 7% of your daily calories, says the instructor.
  • Sugar – Sugar contains no nutrition, says Apps Eccles. If it accounts for a significant portion of your daily calorie requirement, “you have to look at what is it crowding out.” Is it causing you to sacrifice a healthy choice? Or is it leading you to exceed what you need, adding unnecessary fat?

Because menus can’t be expected to make this information as obvious as calorie counts, Apps Eccles sees the addition of the counts as positive. It’s a point for diners to pause and consider, perhaps even investigate further.

“Even if it plants a seed, then I think it’s been successful,” she says. “The more information we have to potentially make better eating decisions for ourselves and our kids, the happier we should be.”

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