News Miriam Donohoe

Thursday 18 September 2014

Menu calorie counters won't cut obesity but may give us indigestion

Published 10/04/2014 | 02:30

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Health Minister James Reilly with Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist public health nutrition at the FSAI. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography.
Can we no longer enjoy a steak in a restaurant without being made to feel guilty?
Can we no longer enjoy a steak in a restaurant without being made to feel guilty?

Suddenly I have a sour taste in my mouth. Our lives are monitored to death as it is, but it seems we are not to be left in peace to enjoy a meal out any more without having to count the cost. Literally.

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Yesterday the Government stirred it up and took a first step towards the introduction of mandatory calorie postings on menus by launching an online calorie counter for use by restaurants.

Menu-cal, designed by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), is to be made available free to the country's 22,000 food service businesses to help chefs calculate calories by assessing quantities of ingredients, the method of preparation and portion size.

Does this mean we won't be able to tuck into a juicy steak with garlic butter and chunky chips on the side, and finished off with a melted chocolate brownie and whipped cream on a night out without feeling we are adding to the national obesity crisis?

I resent the notion that I can't enjoy the pleasure of a good meal without feeling guilty if I pick a dish that is high in fat. When I go out to a restaurant, the last thing I want to know is the number of calories I am consuming.

Of course, I am aware there is a gazillion calories in that steak, chips and dessert. Or that curry. But it is a treat. I want to enjoy it. I certainly don't want the experience ruined by the thought that I have put on a few pounds.

And I don't think I know of any man who would go to a restaurant and let the number of calories in a dish dictate his order.

There is no mention of calories in drink being posted on menus, or included in the calorie counting. In many cases, the number of calories in what we drink with a meal, whether it be wine, beer or a fizzy drink, is as much as what is in the food.

A lot of resources and thought have been put into this new online menu-cal tool. But I can't help wondering if chefs who work under huge pressure in busy kitchens will have the time or patience to input the data needed to make the calculations. And to weigh portions exactly so the information is reliable.

Obesity is a huge problem in our society, especially among our young people. Of course, many people want to know the number of calories they are taking in, and it is important we have information to allow us to make healthy choices.

And it is right that we should be all encouraged to take responsibility in improving the well-being of ourselves and our families.

But calorie counts in restaurants is not the answer. Since 2008, fast food restaurants in New York have had to post calorie information. But subsequent studies have shown that while these raised consumer awareness, the measure had virtually no effect on what the New Yorkers actually purchased. In fact, kids there are still consuming as many calories as before.

Posting calories will simply lull us into thinking we've done something meaningful about the obesity problem. It won't push people out of fast food and other restaurants and into their kitchens to cook healthy fare. It certainly won't eliminate deserts or stop people guzzling sugar-filled fizzy drinks.

And most importantly, it won't stop the fact that it will still be cheaper for families under financial pressure to buy processed, less healthy food.

We already know when we go out for a meal a salad is a lot healthier than a steak and chips. And that a 6-ounce steak will have less calories than a 10-ounce one. And that to pass on dessert helps keep us trim. We don't need a new online tool to tell us that. It is common sense.

Combating obesity requires a lot more than a gimmick. It requires a massive public information and education campaign to encourage us all to make good choices for ourselves and our children.

Getting serious about eating less and eating healthier is going to take a lot more than slapping a number on a menu board. Posting calorie counts won't cut it. It will give us indigestion.

Irish Independent

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