Sally Engelhart | Why calories don’t count
Scientifically Blonde | Menus should highlight more meaningful nutritional info
October 26, 2011, 7:13 pm·
You know what I really, really hate? Those little calorie postings next to items on fast-food restaurant menus. And it’s not because they make me feel like a fatass every time I want a cookie (400 calories?! Puh-lease!) But really, my problem with calorie postings is that they totally miss the mark when it comes to helping people make healthy eating choices.
Posting calorie counts next to menu items is supposed to encourage people to make healthier choices by encouraging them to consume fewer calories when dining out.
Well, if that’s the goal, Stanford, Yale and New York universities say it doesn’t work. A Stanford study of Starbucks in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, released in January, found consumers purchased — brace yourself — a measly 6 percent fewer calories when calories were posted next to food and beverage items. Six percent (hah!) — that’s 12 calories fewer (read: a morsel of muffin or a half-sip left of your nonfat pumpkin spice latte) for people that were ordering 200 calories during their visits to Starbucks. In a study published in October 2009, professors from Yale and NYU found consumers in fast-food restaurants actually ordered more calories when restaurants posted caloric information.
So, for the majority of the population, it looks like posting caloric information doesn’t make people consume fewer calories. But really, that’s not even my major beef with calorie postings (it just feels so good to rub it in that they don’t work).
Posting caloric information might actually be sabotaging people making healthy food choices.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — calorie consumption is but a small part of weight management. Posting calories portrays to the public that calories are the be-all and end-all of staying healthy. And they’re not.
A small Coke from McDonald’s only has 150 calories in it. Hey, you skipped breakfast anyway, 150 extra calories isn’t that bad and it’s a tiny little cup anyways. Not the unhealthiest decision you could make, right? Wrong. What these calorie postings don’t tell you is that this small Coke has 40 — yes, 40 — grams of sugar (pure carbs, of the worst kind) in it.
Not all calories are created equal. And calorie postings can lure you into a false sense of security if you simply look at the count. 150 calories of Coke is not the same as 150 calories of almonds, grilled chicken or avocado. The Coke is fattening; the chicken isn’t.
On top of that, Coke is neither nutritious nor satiating. But, of course, neither of those facts are reflected in the deceiving 150-calorie count.
If the government is going to give us a lecture on healthy eating every time we dine out, at least make sure the information being thrown at us is useful. Telling me the number of calories in a dish isn’t all that helpful. Where is the information on carbohydrates, protein and fiber that I need to craft healthy meals?
If you go into McDonald’s and see that a Quarter Pounder with cheese has 510 calories, you might be tempted to order the regular hamburger, which weighs in at only 250 calories. But what you don’t know is that the Quarter Pounder has almost 30 grams of filling protein, but the hamburger, with only 12 grams, will leave you hitting up the vending machine for a snack in a couple of hours.
By posting information only about calories, the government isn’t helping us make healthy decisions. In fact, calorie postings only narrow the already limited lens through which the public looks at healthy eating. Tossing some calorie counts at us when we dine out will not make us a healthier population.
In order to make real, healthful decisions about what we eat, we need information about how much sugar, how many carbohydrates, how much fiber and protein are in a dish. But even if the government did decide this information should be posted on restaurant menus, we shouldn’t just be throwing numbers at people.
Theresa Yankovich, a varsity athlete and College senior, understands calories, but admits that when talking about protein or carbohydrates, “I have no idea what I’m looking at or what it means to me.” She explained while she definitively pays attention to calorie counts, if other kinds of nutritional information were posted, she’d probably still focus on the calories simply because that’s what she really understands.
The reason I hate calorie postings is because calories alone do not define healthy or unhealthy foods. Let’s not forget that there’s other nutritional information that counts.
Sally Engelhart is a College senior from Toronto. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Scientifically Blonde appears every other Thursday.