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Friday 15 December 2017

Eamon Keane: Burdening restaurants with calorie totals is not the answer to solving obesity crisis

Ridiculous: How can you work out calorie counts when portion sizes vary so widely
Ridiculous: How can you work out calorie counts when portion sizes vary so widely

I’m stuffed! The news that Dublin and nationwide restaurants will have to display calorie counts for each item on the menu, in the same font and colour as the price, is a mouthful too far.

I’m glad that we are tackling obesity, but we are focussing on the wrong thing and lumping cafe owners with more costs.

 This idea originated in the United States with the Food and Drug Administration. They tried it in New York and found it had no major benefit except for those who were already health-conscious. That’s the problem. Do you think it will make any difference to parents who regularly feed their children takeaways? It’s a bit like the captain of the Titanic giving the passengers a leaflet on the dangers of ice.

If they were really serious about obesity the Government would roll out a nationwide education program for parents and children.

We need to target the root causes of chronic obesity – genetic, mental and social issues that see hundreds of thousands of children eating in a damaging way to their health.

The crucial factor in health is the relationship between what you eat and how you put it out – exercise is vital to counter fat effects. Do they seriously believe that a list of calories for instance will make people exercise more?

 If the Government was serious it might consider giving sports grants to those who need them most, and not to the favoured constituencies of certain TDs.

Calorie menus have more flaws. For children, parental behaviour is the single most important effect governing obesity.  So why don’t we put the focus on what we eat at home, not what you eat on your once a month Saturday night out? Lack of knowledge about weight and health status is one of the biggest blocks to tackling obesity. You don’t sort that with calorie menus outside the home.

Lower income and education are associated with lack of awareness of true weight status. Men also generally differ from women, underestimating their weight with women veering the other direction. Calorie menus won’t make one bit of difference for a lot of people unless we are first educating and changing not just attitudes but behaviour.

Is simply listing calories giving the right information? Calorie menus by themselves, while well-intentioned, need to consider things like the total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugars and sodium. The nutrients in a serving are vital and it is easy to make grand claims about low calories without considering these factors.

By the way, spare a thought for small to medium restaurants – there is a cost for them in getting boards and menus printed and food measured for calorie intake.

What happens when you want to change the menu? Consider also that portions vary from place to place. How will they factor that in?

Servings must be portrayed in terms of something uniform we understand – how do you that with the different portion sizes in each place?

 Lets say we do accept that measuring calorie intake makes a difference. But you could cut down on your calorie intake by say eating two bars of chocolate a day and nothing else. So what does that prove? A healthy diet is not about sticking calorie data on a menu. 

By the way, whatever happened to a happy dining experience? We’ve withstood bailouts and Irish Water, so at least let us enjoy our one night out! Hitting your favourite restaurant and having to contend with the Calorie Police is not a fun night out.

Putting out information about something does not mean it will change behaviour.  

People overeat for many reasons. If we’re serious about tacking obesity, we will tackle these factors.

Appeasing already health-conscious voters in the leafy suburbs of Dublin  makes for good headlines.

However, burdening our cafes and restaurants with meaningless calorie totals is not the answer to solving our obesity crisis.   

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