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Would calorie-counting menus help bust Oz girths?

As previously reported in Croakey below, there is a weight-busting move afoot in the US to introduce calorie-counting menus in chain restaurants. These have been in place in New York City since last year but may be more widely introduced.

Would such a move be useful and welcomed in Australia? Read on…

Associate Professor Tim Gill, Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise, University of Sydney:

“Requiring calories counts to be placed on menu boards in restaurant chains is a good thing but as Jane Martin points out, it is unlikely to have a profound effect on food choice by itself.

It is akin to putting up speed advisory signs at dangerous bends in the road. They are useful if you understand and are accepting of the benefits of such advice; recognise your own limitations and the need to be cautious of road conditions; are not distracted by other issues and thus fail to acknowledge such advisory signs; or over-ride the advice because of your perceived lack of time to slow down.

Unfortunately with both calorie counts and speed advisory signs they are often ignored.

This is not a reason to avoid instituting such measures because they will be of benefit to those who are in a receptive state and can effectively process and act on the information.

Rather it is a reminder that such measures need to be instituted in combination with a variety of other strategies to encourage and support people to be more receptive to these signals.

Of course the preferred method of dealing with dangerous bends in the road is not to encourage people to slow down but rather to take that responsibility away from them by remaking the road at great expense to remove the bend.

Funny, no one ever suggests that this is a nanny-state approach to road safety.”

***

David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison, Why Sugar Makes us Fat:

“Would you feed your kids a glass of milk or a glass of Coke for breakfast?  Yep, I’d go with the milk too.

How about if you know that the milk has 168 Calories but the Coke has only 108.  Would you switch to the Coke then?  No? You’ve just explained to yourself why Calorie labelling is a pointless waste of time.

You’ve also explained to yourself why Big Sugar is particularly keen on Calorie labelling.  They know a few things which most nutritionist have either forgotten or didn’t know in the first place.

Fat serves up 9 Calories per gram whereas everything else (including sugar) is only 4 Calories.  Calorie labelling is therefore really just fat labelling by another name.  The reason the milk has more Calories than the coke is because it contains fat and the Coke doesn’t.

The study referred to by Dr Russell tells us that it doesn’t really matter anyway.  Just over a quarter of the respondents noticed the Calorie information and it didn’t influence their choices anyway.

Big Sugar knows that no-one knows or cares what a Calorie label means and even if they did, sugary products would come out looking good by comparison.  Do we really want people being steered towards high sugar, low fat foods by Calorie labels?

Ignorance of the number of Calories in food has nothing to do with why we are all fat. We are fat because our food supply is laced with sugar.  Sugar has been proven to significantly interfere with our body’s internal Calorie counter (by making us resistant to the hormones which tell us when are full).

When our appetite control system is working, we eat exactly the number of Calories we need.  If they come from fat, we eat less of everything else.  If they come from protein or carbohydrate, we eat more.

We are fat because our fuel gauge is broken.  We are not fat because we don’t know how much fat is in what we are eating.  We don’t need Calorie counts on menus, we need our built in Calorie counters to start working again.  And the way to do that is eliminate sugar from the food supply.

But don’t fret too much about lobbying for Calorie counts, Big Sugar will implement them voluntarily soon enough.”

****

Stephen Leeder,  Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Sydney and Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy:

“My personal view is that the more nutritional information that consumers can be given access to, the better.  The work that Tom Friedan, former chief health officer of New York City and now boss of CDC, in getting restaurants to label their menus is part of a larger enterprise to raise community and commercial awareness of nutritional responsibility. He did the same with tobacco control to good effect.

People DO take an interest in food labelling. Come with me one weekend to Coles in Katoomba – hardly the socioeconomic pinnacle of NSW society – and observe how often customers stop and read and compare food labels.

Many would argue, with evidence, that colour coding of foods with red, orange and green to indicate the safety levels of key components such as saturated fat, calorie density and whatever else.

The food industry presents elaborate objections to the ‘traffic light’ labelling. But in the meantime, until this is resolved, clear nutritional labelling makes sense. I think one of the craziest moves ever was the move away from the calorie, which many people understood, to kilojoules, which people don’t understand.

Food labelling is very political and much engagement with the food industry by action oriented politicians (and not all are) makes great sense.”

***

Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Health, and Director, WHO Collaborating Center for Obesity Prevention Deakin University:

“I am just travelling at the moment but have discussed this people here in the US.  It started in New York City where to got in regulations to include the calorie content next to the price on the menu boards of chain restaurants.  They also had an anchor that about 2000 kcal is what was needed for a typical day for a typical adult.

Several other cities/states started following suit and expending the provisions. The industry could foresee an escalating situation and called for federal regulations which require the calorie information but prevent local authorities for pushing it further.

I definitely think the Australia should follow suit and all the arguments that it is not possible have evaporated. Our use of kJ will add complexity however.”

Comments 5

  1. A relevant health impact assessment was conducted in the US:

    http://www.ph.ucla.edu/hs/hiaclic/archive/menu_labeling08.htm

  2. EnergyPedant says:

    The kJ vs Calorie labelling arguement is plainly stupid. It’s just a factor of 4.2 different.

    Most people don’t know how many calories are ok anyway. You just need to teach people the correct value to target.

    Its easier to explain what a kJ is than a calorie anyway.

    A calorie is the energy taken to heat one gram of water one degree (very abstract).

    A kJ is the energy required to lift 1 kg, 10 cm, 1000 times. Much clearer concept. So my 768 kJ Snickers means I need to do some lifting…

  3. Interesting article from the Times which is (vaguely) relevant “Scientists advising the Government say that the calorie counts used as the basis of diet plans and healthy-eating advice for the past 18 years may be wrong.”

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article6916617.ece

  4. Margo Saunders says:

    It’s worth having a look at the arguments being mounted in opposition to nutrition information (see, for example, the report at: http://www.wlf.org/upload/BashamLuikWP%20final.pdf, bearing in mind that public health people may recognise Luik from his involvement in tobacco-related causes — see http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=John_Luik).
    It is also worth taking account of research which is relevant to the law of unintended consequences — in this case, seeing healthier options allegedly led to unhealthier choices by consumers. This may not have received much attention in Australia, so check out: http://www.fuqua.duke.edu/news_events/releases/fitzsimons_healthy_options/
    Some comments from the researchers:
    “We find that simply seeing, and perhaps briefly considering, the healthy option fulfills their need to make healthy choices, freeing the person to give in to temptation and make an unhealthy choice. In fact, when this happens people become so detached from their health-related goals, they go to extremes and choose the least healthy item on the menu.”
    “Adding the healthier option caused people with high self-control to choose the least healthy option possible. Even though it was not their first choice before the healthy option was included.”

    The team’s findings suggest that encouraging people to make better choices may require significant effort on the part of both food service providers and customers. “What this shows is that adding one or two healthy items to a menu is essentially the worst thing you can do,” …”Because, while a few consumers will choose the healthy option, it causes most consumers to make drastically worse choices.”

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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
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Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
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Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
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Population Health Congress 2015
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