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Do calorie counts on menus help or harm?

Research proves that knowing the calories of a meal rarely stops people from eating it. Instead, work on learning how to eat mindfully

The calories in a burger vary widely depending on multiple factors
The calories in a burger vary widely depending on multiple factors (Unsplash)

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I distinctly remember seeing calories listed on a fast-food restaurant’s menu. It was almost ten years ago, and I was in rural Ontario, Canada, looking at what soft-serve ice cream treat I should get from Dairy Queen. I saw these funny italicized numbers beside the product name, and at first glance, I wasn’t sure if I saw them right. I blinked a few times, hoping the numbers would rearrange or disappear. My favourite order, an Oreo Blizzard, boasted a whopping 620 kcal per serving – more than the salad I ate at lunchtime.

I already knew that an Oreo Blizzard constituted an “occasional treat” in my diet. However, blindsided by the black-and-white starkness of the calorie count, I desperately searched for an alternative on the menu that felt more reasonable. I settled on a chocolate-dipped cone which was still an eye-watering 330 kcal.

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Becoming a norm

Over the years, calorie counts on menus have steadily become the norm. Americans adopted it in 2018, India in 2021, and the United Kingdom in 2022.

For me, it’s become an interesting exercise to see if the foods I’m craving when I go to a restaurant resemble a bomb explosion of excess calories or if it neatly fits in with how much I should consume in a day. Some days, I throw caution to the wind and order the butter-drenched filet of fish (which was a healthy option until the butter was melted over it). On others, I opt for a healthier, less calorie-dense option and feel very virtuous after my meal.

Neither of these meals is better than the other. For me, it comes down to the context of the occasion, and its consequences are relative to everything else I choose to consume.

However, I am the poster child, the “case in point,” if you will, as to why calorie counts on menus is a good thing. I can detach the calories from the food and make decisions based on the reality of my diet. This was likely the hope and dream of every government official who green-lit these mandatory “improvements” to menus. Having said that, I’m a little less certain we have chosen the best way to educate consumers on the food they eat. Every government initiative I read cited that it was a step in the right direction. They claimed that the best way to fight the obesity epidemic was by educating the customer at the till. However, knowing what I know about calorie counting, obsessive food-related behaviours, and how behaviour changes actually play out, it often feels like all this is lipstick on a pig. It’s a desperate attempt to do something, anything, to look like we are battling the rising obesity epidemic.

An obesity epidemic

According to a recent study published by the World Obesity Federation, “more than half of the world’s population will be overweight or obese by 2035 unless urgent action is taken to curb the growing epidemic of excess weight,” it states. So yes, taking a critical look at our current lifestyles, how we move, eat, sleep and manage stress is very important.

But is menu labelling really the way ahead? Well, let’s look at some studies to start with. A literature review called The Influence of Calorie Labelling on Food Orders and Consumption, published in 2014, found numerous studies which concluded that although people recognized the calories on the menu, very few people made choices influenced by them. For example, as the review notes, while 57% of youth in New York were aware of the calorie notation on the menu only 9% of them made decisions based on these calories. A study conducted by the British Medical Journal also reflected these statistics, but in the UK. Over three years, calorie consumption decreased by 4%; however, it steadily began to rise again.

There are a couple of reasons behind these numbers, one of which is location. Study data on this topic is sparse and sometimes solely related to a city or region which may have different eating-out habits than a neighbouring community, province, or state. Just like how obesity rates are different in the other areas of India, some of these states have varying habits regarding home food consumption. Listing calories on menus in areas where home food consumption is the norm may have little effect on the consumer’s consumption habits out of the home because these outings occur too infrequently to have a significant impact.

More importantly, calories can differ wildly between batches of food simply because each food ingredient will contain a vastly different number of calories. One large apple, for example, may have 120 kcal but a medium one, 80 kcal. Food labellers and government bodies understand and accept this vast difference that the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority in India) accounts for a 25% tolerable deviation in calorific values. That deviation is substantial; if you’re listing a hamburger at 500 kcal, its actual value could be upwards of 625 kcal or as low as 375 kcal. We can only hope for the latter.

But that desire for restaurants to overvalue the calories listed on the food is human nature. We as humans tend to underestimate our calorie intake regularly by forgetting the food we have nibbled on throughout the day or simply not recognizing that the food we order in restaurants is as calorific as it is. This is a situation where we argue that listing calories on the menu is a good tactic to create awareness. But awareness of what? Less prominent than the calories on the menu are the daily calorific needs of men and women, broadly speaking, which are 1900 kcal for women and 2100 kcal for men. By focusing on the calories on the menu rather than a person’s overall calorie intake, we are asking people to make decisions based on incomplete information and flawed perceptions of calorie counting.

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A tricky line to tread

All I just said relates to the average consumer who has no obsessive relationship with calorie counting or an unhealthy relationship with food. Now if you belong to the second category, having calories listed on the menu isn’t just an inadequate way of keeping track of your nutrition; it can be triggering. For these consumers, having calories listed on every food item in every major restaurant must feel like an exhaustive task to stay balanced among the barrage of negative feelings that can be associated with food. It’s the trickiest line to tread; how do you educate and protect the people unconsciously making food decisions that impact their long-term health while safeguarding the mental health of those who struggle differently?

Ultimately, I can’t fault people for trying to do their part in creating awareness about food choices. However, more work needs to be done on educating people on reconnecting their physical needs with nutritional value foods. Mindful eating and intuitive eating practices are essentially the only things that will work for long-term success. Yes, they take time to implement and learn, but they set consumers up for a lifetime of smart decisions with their food consumption.

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based fitness coach

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