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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

International No Diet Day - May 6th

Hey downtown Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo, check it out!

Friday May 6th, 2016 is International No Diet Day, and when you stroll on the downtown streets of the above cities, you will see signs in some of the storefront windows that promote positive body-image or anti-dieting messages.  Make sure to take some time and look for the signs! You may even find a decal or two in a change room. Let's change the message in our culture, conversations and minds!

Here are 10 suggestions of ways to participate in International No Diet Day:

- Take a break from dieting. Try eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full.    Listen to your body’s signals.

- Stop thinking about foods as “good,” “bad” or “junk food.” Taste, savour and enjoy allfoods to the fullest!

- Make health, not weight loss, your lifestyle goal.

- Give up, or better still, smash the scale

- Clean out your closet and get rid of all your “thin clothes” - donate these items to charity

- Ask local bookstores to display anti-diet and “Health At Every Size” books this month

- Stop focusing on appearance. Don’t make comments like “You look great! Have you lost weight?” Look for other praise-worthy comments to highlight other than personal appearance.

- Engage in physical activities for pleasure and health benefits, rather than regimented exercise for the primary purpose of weight loss

- End weight discrimination by celebrating size diversity. Beauty, health and fitness come in all sizes

- Check out downtown store windows hosting slogans promoting positive body image and size acceptance. Don’t let the fact that International No Diet Day is only one day of the year stop you from practicing the above on a daily basis.

For more background on eating disorders, size acceptance and the Health At Every Size movement, please visit the following websites: www.eatingdisorderscoalition.ca; http://www.haescommunity.org or www.nedic.ca

Dear Body, Love Me

Body love. Body acceptance. Body trust. These are some of the many words used to describe healthy relationships with our bodies. Yet, too many women, men and children struggle with body image dissatisfaction. The causes are complex and it affects those with and without disordered eating. 

In light of February being the month that celebrates love and Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I propose that we celebrate by writing a ‘love letter’ to our bodies. Too often our relationships with our bodies can become neglectful, critical and even abusive. However, our bodies are our constant companions in life. They are our protectors and our alarm system when things are not right. 

Like all healthy relationships, our relationship with our bodies needs respect, care, and acceptance. We need to recognize and accept that our bodies are dynamic, ever changing with age and life experiences (e.g., tattoos and piercings, pregnancy and childbirth, accidents and illnesses, etc.). These changes are not something to be ashamed of but rather reminders of how strong our bodies are and how they’ve helped us survive and thrive. 

Writing a letter to your body is not easy, so find a time and space that is comfortable. Your letter could be handwritten in a journal or a scrap piece of paper, and/or typed or posted online. You could express yourself with pictures and/or photographs, or musically through a song. Use whatever medium allows you best to express yourself—and amazingly in the process using your body. 

To get you started, the following are examples of things you might be grateful for:

-Everyday biological functions: breathing, heart pumping blood, restoration during sleep, absorption of nutrients and creation of energy from food

-Giving clues to your emotional state: the hot flush of anger, the butterflies of nervousness and/or excitement, and the warmth of love and affection for others

-Laughter (especially the deep belly kind)

-Dancing: fast or slow; on your own, with friends, or with a loved one

-Singing (in the shower counts!)

-Creating art through painting, writing, music, etc.

-Hugging loved ones

-Petting and playing with an animal

-Pleasure from (consensual) kissing and sex

-Building strength and endurance through physical activities 

-Creating, feeding and nurturing babies/children

Writing a “Dear Body” letter will not necessarily change how you feel about your body, or how you see yourself. Again, the causes of body image dissatisfaction are complex and recovery is as well. However, this letter may serve as a gentle reminder of all the incredible things your body does for you each and every day. It may even help you build a more ‘friendly’ relationship with your body. And, in those darker moments, you can look at this letter and remind yourself that even though you don’t like certain aspects of your body, as a whole every ‘body’ is amazing! 

By Carrie Pollard-Jarrell, MSW RS