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Calorie count displays and other dietary information measures set up by the government have bothered me for a very long time – ever since the UK came up with its “traffic light” labeling system. For those who don’t know what it is, this picture in the Guardian displays the system. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/16/meps-reject-traffic-light-food-labelling

I give that credit. At least it spoke about more than just calories BUT by giving red, orange, and green people weren’t reading the numbers; they were just assuming a food with any red was bad. Remember, this system is on packaged food, food that already has the required nutritional information on the back label in great detail. It was just trying to make things “easier” for the consumer. Education wasn’t happening.

Then in the USA things got worse (this is all in my opinion of course). Regulations in certain states insisted that calorie counts be put next to the food or beverage item on the menu. Nothing else. No fat, salt, or sugar content. Rather, it is just the calories completely out of context. I have been arguing against this since it first appeared.

I hate it for a number of reasons (don’t worry, I don’t like to be completely biased, so I will explore both sides eventually).

1. Off-putting: Yes, I know that’s the point. It’s meant to make people aware of what they are eating and how many calories are in their food or drink. I understand that, but it isn’t telling me anything real. What do I learn from the fact that my potential “coffee beverage” is 700 calories and my breakfast muffin is almost 500. Well, I know that based on my age, exercise regime (or lack thereof), sex, and current weight, governmental scientists suggest that I should eat somewhere between 1500-1800 calories a day. So, if I have my breakfast coffee drink and muffin I guess I only have another 600 more calories I’m allowed that day. That’s not healthy, and that’s certainly not a balanced diet. No, I hear you crying, the point is for it to stop me from eating such an unhealthy meal. Fine then, I’m put off by the calorie counts and I get a black coffee and no muffin for breakfast. Is that better? No! The counts have taught me nothing other than guilt over the items I wanted to eat/drink.

2. Uninformative: As I have just mentioned, I feel that I learn nothing of value from these calorie counts aside from whether or not to feel guilt over what I like to eat or drink. Calorie content is such a small part of the overall food content that without all the other information it is almost meaningless.

3. Misleading: as I said, calories are such a small part of what food brings to your body that having governmental regulations requiring only calorie count be displayed is misleading. It implies that this is all that’s important. Okay, I’ll just get a plate of vegetables then, but let me pour half a container of salt on them first…One medium banana has the same calorie content as a regular chocolate bar; does that mean they’re both just as good for me? They’re both low in calories!

4. Damaging: these counts affect everyone, not just those who “should” be aware of calorie count. What about the person recovering from an eating disorder just trying to eat normally? S/he goes out to eat and is bombarded with the amount of calories in every dish. It’s unnecessary; not everyone wants, needs, or should know. What I mean by that is that I don’t think it’s sensible to teach our children that calories are what matter. Yes, by all means, teach them about food, about eating “healthily” (whatever that means today), and about what the body needs, but must everything be defined by a calorie content? In an image obsessed world, where little children are getting more and more concerned about image and weight, and kids as young as 7 are being admitted to hospitals for severe eating disorders I think that our priorities are a little messed up.

Those were the things I always felt. Please, have the information in a leaflet on the side (like Starbucks always used to) but don’t throw it in my face. If I want to know then I will look. I was told by some that I was too isolated and naive. What about the people who were not as lucky as me? Specifically those who didn’t have parents to teach them about food and who didn’t have access to the internet to look up information I needed? These calorie counts are an important method of education.

But are they? As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t find that they educate much. They are essentially a way to guilt and mentally bully a person into not getting the food they enjoy because of how many calories it has. Maybe that’s a good thing, after all the point is to stop people eating things that are “bad for them”. But why can’t their be more information, why can’t this be taught in schools as opposed to shoved in our faces when we want to eat?

On top of this, I learnt an interesting fact about these calorie counts and how they were having the opposite effect than was desired on the very populations who were believed to need it the most. Imagine you are a parent in low income family. You have enough money to feed your family one meal a day. What are you going to get: the lower calorie meal or the one with the most calories? The most calories, because if you can’t afford to feed yourself and your family regularly then you want to get them the “highest energy” meal possible. The more calories the better. So, one of the main groups that this initiative was aimed towards is actually using the system to order the food with the most calories.

So, who wins? Obviously the public health officials believed this would work. A quick google search just now suggested it hasn’t made much of a difference.

http://www.today.com/health/who-cares-about-calories-restaurant-menu-labels-dont-work-study-6C10677922

Calorie counts on menus may put off a few people once or twice, but in general they seem to have either no effect or a negative effect; whether that negative effect is misinformation, perpetuating disordered eating, or encouraging low income families to buy the “unhealthy” options.

Have calorie counts in restaurants and cafes made a difference in your eating?

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