Why calorie counting can be misleading
Restaurant menus may soon include a calorie count for each dish -- but this numbers game doesn't tell the full story, writes Deirdre Reynolds
If you're reading the paper while sipping a cafe mocha or nibbling a Danish pastry, brace yourself: you may have blown half of your recommended calorie intake for the day.
But then, if you're one of the well-informed customers at Bay Restaurant in Clontarf, you probably already know that.
The seaside restaurant is one of the growing number of Irish businesses doing their bit in the battle of the bulge by displaying the calorie content (among other nutritional information) of its dishes on the menu.
And co-owner Niamh Costello admits that it's made some morning regulars wake up and smell the coffee.
"Some of our customers are shocked to discover that a scone with jam and cream contains nearly 1,000 calories -- and end up going for a healthier option," says Niamh.
Just last week, Unilever in the UK launched a campaign to get chefs to slash more than 500 million calories from their menus -- or 24 calories per dish.
And if Health Minister James Reilly has his way, soon all coffee shops and restaurants here could be forced to confess how calorific their meals are.
With just 15pc of us still eating out once a week would you really want to know how many calories are in that slice of chocolate cake?
"Most people are not dining out on a daily or even weekly basis any more," says Evan Doyle, co-owner of The Strawberry Tree restaurant at The Brook Lodge & Wells Spa in Wicklow. "So when they do, they want to enjoy it.
"I'm flummoxed by Unilever insisting on chefs cutting the calorie content of their dishes when, if you look at the back of one of their products, Pot Noodle, you'll see there are over 380 calories in it -- not to mention salt and sugar.
"I don't think you can blame restaurants for obesity. It's the processed food on supermarket shelves that's the real culprit."
With the Restaurants Association of Ireland predicting it will cost the industry €110m a year, it's no surprise that 85pc of restaurants here say they have no plans to voluntarily put calorie counts on menus.
"Apart from anything else, it would be impractical to display calories on our menu," Doyle adds. "Our menu changes 365 days a year depending on what ingredients are in season and available."
Restaurateurs aren't the only ones railing against the idea of resurrecting calorie-counting -- which originally caught on at the turn of the 20th century when American chemist Wilbur Atwater discovered how to measure how many units of energy (calories) were in different foods and how many were burned off by various activities.
In the past, balancing 'calories in' with 'calories out' was thought to be the best way to lose weight.
The average man needs around 2,500 calories and the average woman around 2,000 calories per day to maintain their weight -- so given that a pound of flesh contains 3,500 calories, in order to lose one pound a week, you'd have to cut back by 500 calories a day.
But today it's not that simple, according to experts.
"Calorie-counting can be very misleading and something I urge my clients to avoid," says nutritional chef Lynda McFarland of www.lyndamcfarland.com.
"Not all calories are created equal -- for example, a fizzy drink may have the same calories as a piece of fruit, but none of the vitamins or minerals.
"People usually only look at the calorie content," she adds. "I'd much prefer my client to choose a higher-calorie oily fish over a low-caloried processed food any day."
With celebrity calorie counters including Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba and Nicole Scherzinger though, can women ever be convinced to ditch the world's oldest diet?
"In theory, 'calories in' versus 'calories out' works," reckons Tina Murphy, founder of female-only running class Run With Tina (www.runwithtina.com). "If you eat more calories than required, you're going to put on weight.
"However, I find most people are so hung up on calories that they forget about the nutritional value of what they're eating -- or worse, don't eat enough.
"Cutting 24 calories from restaurant dishes is completely pointless," she adds.
"People will still go to the supermarket and buy all the sugary, fatty stuff. It would be much better to encourage chefs to replace sugar with natural sweeteners.
"The best way to lose weight is to forget about counting calories and focus on eating 'clean'. Avoid processed foods and drinks, sugar and wheat, and, of course, stay active and the weight will fall off."
Back at Bay, Niamh Costello insists: "We haven't changed our menu -- there are still burgers and desserts on it. But at least now our customers can make a more informed choice."
"I can understand why some restaurants don't want to do it," adds Niamh, who co-runs the restaurant with her sister Sinead. "For us it was about the type of restaurant we wanted to be -- and most of our customers love it."