Blog

Is calorie information on menus really a good idea? The consequences no one is talking about

On January 1, 2017, The Healthy Menu Choices Act will come into effect in Ontario. This Act requires restaurants with twenty or more locations to list calorie information for foods and beverages on their menus. Moreover, fast food joints, movie theatres, supermarkets and convenience stores that serve hot food must post the calorie counts of each item – including alcohol – on their menus, menu boards, tags in display cases and at drive-thrus. Then there’s the definition of ‘menu’ which includes not only paper table menus, but online menus, menu apps, advertisements and promotional flyers – all in the same size and prominence as the name and price of the food item. The act will make Ontario the first province in Canada to require calorie information to be displayed on menus, with the goal of providing consumers with information that will allow them to make more balanced food choices, along with the (hidden) agenda of obesity prevention.

While it is true that Canadians need help eating well, I have significant concerns about the proposed approach. In recent months, many articles have discussed the potential pros and cons of this approach and I expect the conversation will continue to increase as we head towards January. Articles I’ve read thus far discuss downsides that mostly focus on the costs restaurants will incur in testing their products and changing their menus to display calorie information. Here are just three of the many potential down sides that I see, and that no one seems to be talking about.

Calorie counting is a distraction from internal cues that our body provides us with

In most situations, hunger and fullness are great ways to gauge portions sizes that are right for you. The trouble is that we often fail to listen to these cues. We often eat quickly, while on the go, or in front of a screen. Some of us may push off or ignore our hunger. Many of us finish entire meals without even tasting them. Rather than setting a calorie target for meals, experiment with mindful eating. Trust your body; it’s smarter than you think! We trust our bodies to breath when needed and to control our body temperature for us, so why do we feel the need to count and control calories?

Calorie counts are a fear tactic, not an educational tool

Many of our nutrition-related health issues stem from the fact that we are over-worked, over-stressed, lack cooking skills and are out of touch with where our food comes from. We are already bombarded with a ton of nutrition information that leaves us feeling confused. Our society makes assumptions that individuals with a body weight above the ‘normal range’ eat too much or move their bodies too little. Rather than addressing underlying issues, encouraging individuals to choose lower calorie menu options and shaming those who choose higher calorie options is likely to make the situation worse. It promotes a toxic relationship with food, an unhealthy approach to weight and weight loss, and greatly increases one’s risk of dangerous and disordered eating behaviours (and for those already struggling with these illnesses, constant exposure to calorie counts can only serve to increase obsessiveness and exacerbate eating disorder behaviours). Instead, I’d love to see a societal shift that provides education on how to purchase, store and prepare nutritious food options and that helps individuals reconnect with natural hunger and fullness cues.

Calorie counts look at foods in isolation

We all have different calorie and nutrient needs, but we also all have different schedules and routines. There is no ‘right’ or ‘best’ menu option. The option that you choose on the menu should depend on how hungry you are, what you like the taste of, and what you feel like eating, not its caloric value. If you overhear the person at the table beside you ordering chocolate cake for dessert, you have no idea if they order it once a day or once a year. You have no idea what they’ve eaten so far today or what the rest of their day will look like. A single meal is simply a snapshot in time, it does not define you and it should not be used to pass judgement on others.

Calorie counts are coming to menus at chain restaurants in Ontario January 1, 2017. We may not be able to stop them, but we can work to control the effect they have on us. Challenge yourself to slow down, to listen to the cues that your body is giving you, and to use those internal cues to make food choices rather than being drawn to calorie counts. We are more than food, and food is more than calories.

Written by Lindzie O’Reilly, MAN, RD with contributions from April Gates, MSW, RSW

Bring mindfulness to your table

In a hectic world where many of us rush from one task to another, fitting in a quick meal while we think of what we have to do next has become the norm. When we’re not consciously focused on the food we are eating, we’re less likely to recognize the signals that tell us we are hungry or full or to experience the sensory satisfaction food brings. In fact, if we’re stressed, distracted or in a hurry, it’s easy to finish a meal and realize we haven’t even tasted a bite. Mindless eating is like eating on autopilot; it encourages overeating, undereating and guilt. Learning how to eat mindfully can help us have a better relationship with food and ultimately enjoy better physical and emotional health. 

Mindful eating is the practice of paying attention to the food we eat so that we consume the amount our body needs to be nourished and satisfied. It helps us to explore our internal and external eating cues. Mindful eating is more about how rather than what we eat. 

Here are some strategies to help you practice mindful eating: 

        - Eat at consistent and regular times, which helps you to listen to your body and recognize  

          hunger signals. 

      - Be aware of your meal choices but avoid judgement or “good food/bad food” thoughts. 

      - Eat your meal in the kitchen or dining room rather than in front of your TV or computer. 

      - Slow down and pay attention to what you are eating by using all of your senses- sight, smell,

        taste, touch and hearing. 

      - If you are a fast eater, aim for making a meal last 20 minutes. Put your fork or spoon down

          between bites and chew slowly. 

      - Be in the present moment– focus on the act of eating rather than what you should have

          done or what you plan to do next. 

      - Recognize and observe your thoughts during your meal or snack. 

      - Return your attention to the act of eating if your mind wanders.

      - Learning how to eat mindfully takes practice but can help you learn to savour every bite. 

       - Pay Attention to how your body feels before, during and after your meal. 

Here are some additional resources you may find helpful:

Books: 

  • Eating What you Love, Love What you Eat by Michelle May, MD
  • Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food by Susan Albers, PsyD, and Lilian Cheung, DSc, RD
  • Every Bit is Divine by Annie Kay, MS, RD, RYT
  • Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works by Evely Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA
  • Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food by Jan Chozen Bays, MD
  • Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wanksink, PhD
  • Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung, DSc, RD                      
  • Website: The Centre for MindfulEating

 

What’s Wrong with Canada’s Food Guide?

What’s wrong with Canada’s food guide?

Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide (originally called Canada’s Official Food Rules) has been around since 1942 and is meant to provide guidance when it comes to making healthy and nutritionally adequate food choices. There has been much talk recently about the state of the Food Guide and many calls for an update.

As a science, nutrition is not new. Nutrition is, however, constantly evolving. Additionally, because we all eat, we all have our own opinions about food and nutrition. Combined together, this has created a very complicated and, in my opinion, often toxic food environment.

How is the average person supposed to make sense of all of this information? Is the Food Guide still a useful tool for Canadians?

In many ways, the Food Guide can serve as a source of guidance, but in my opinion, should not stand alone.

I believe that Health Canada will always struggle to develop a Food Guide that depicts the natural variety of a healthy diet. We eat for many different reasons, we all have different likes and dislikes, and we have each been raised in a unique food environment (i.e. the foods you were exposed to and the messages you were provided with as a child). From the Food Guide, one can learn that a serving of meat and alternatives could be two eggs or 75g of chicken, but what if you have never cooked an egg before, or are terrified of purchasing and touching raw chicken? I believe that in order to bring about healthy change in our society, we need to spend a little more time looking at issues such as busy schedules or lack of cooking skills, rather than debating whether to include 75g or 100g of chicken with dinner or feeling guilty if we include three tablespoons of peanut butter instead of two.

We have forgotten about balance, and instead have begun an unrealistic pursuit of perfection

I will admit that, when building a meal plan for clients, I typically include a bit more protein and a bit less carbohydrate than the Food Guide suggests. I also believe that the Food Guide does tend to emphasize more processed grains (i.e. cereals, granola bars, and breads) and neglects the awesome variety of tasty and unprocessed whole grains (have you tried millet, amaranth, buckwheat or teff??). That said, following the Food Guide “as is” will certainly not make you unhealthy and I work very hard to fight against many of the extreme approaches that continue to pop up in the media and in social circles. 

Cutting out entire foods or food groups and labelling foods as “good” and “bad” has the potential to have a very harmful effect on health and a very destructive effect on one’s relationship with food. Instead, if I feel that an individual is consuming more carbohydrate or processed food than is ideal for their health, I believe in giving them the knowledge and skills necessary to increase their intake of fresh healthy food, rather than shaming them for eating processed food or establishing rules against it. 

The Food Guide focusses on individual food choices, rather than the overall picture

All in all, I believe that debate around the content of the Food Guide has led us to become caught up in the nitty gritty details. We look to the Food Guide to provide rules and guidance and, in doing so; have forgotten the importance of enjoying delicious real food. When working with clients, I often keep the Food Guide in the back of my mind, but would almost never pull it out and use it in a session. Instead, I am more likely to talk with clients about trends in their intake and set specific and individualized goals around variety and balance at meals and snacks.

I believe that we should always have a Food Guide that provides guidance regarding balanced and nutritionally adequate choices. I believe that our current Food Guide could use some updates to reflect a greater variety of fresh whole foods. I also believe, however, that the Food Guide should never serve as a stand-alone document and that, if you have concerns about your food habits, you should work with a qualified health professional to find a routine that works for your body, that you enjoy, and that you can maintain long term.

Questions, thoughts or concerns? Feel free to contact me at lindzie.oreilly.nutrition@gmail.com