At the end of February, the provincial government introduced legislation that would require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on their menus.
In doing so, the government heeded the call of health experts who were concerned about the rates of obesity. This seems to be a simple straight forward intervention; tell people how many calories are in the foods that they are ordering and they will make better decisions. The problem is that most of us are not simple or straight forward folk. Our decisions are influenced by many things and many of the factors that influence our decisions in the moment are out of direct control or our awareness. That may be why the results of studies examining these types of interventions are quite mixed. When asked why support an intervention that is not clearly effective, my colleagues in the obesity field respond with two arguments.
‘More information is a good thing and people should know what they are eating’ is generally the first response, while others suggest ‘it does no harm and it may do some good.’
Again, on the face of it, both are logical and well-intentioned position. However, this intervention and the arguments that support it are flawed. More information is not always a good thing - context is important. For information to be useful, it has to be presented in a manner that takes into account the intended audience and how they are affected by the manner in which the information is presented
It can be argued that insisting that corporations post nutritional information will encourage the reformulation of food products. While this may be true, the resulting changes may actually reduce the nutritional quality of the food. If the intended audience is the consumer, the effect of this legislation is once again disappointing. But the biggest problem is how it affects the unintended audience. Certainly, Ontarians struggling with eating disorders (one in six adolescent girls) are negatively impacted. Knowing caloric content a food item will be a significant barrier to being able to eat the food. Some patients struggling to recover will now be forced to avoid coffee shops and restaurants they once felt comfortable patronizing. We have legislated their exclusion from various social settings. No longer will it be safe and fun to join their friends at their favourite eatery.
A second group of Ontarians at risk of harm from this legislation are children who want to do things right. In many schools they are being taught to read packaging and notice calories. They are being taught how many calories a day they should eat and how to count them. The problem with this is that for some kids, the ones who care too much, the ones who want to be ‘perfect’, these numbers can get overwhelming. It can lead to restriction and the rejection of many foods in order to fit into an arbitrary limit in number of calories. We will be teaching normal healthy eaters to ignore their hunger and satiety cues and to eat by numbers. We will be teaching them how to have an eating disorder.
So what this legislation that does do is give us the illusion that we are dealing with problematic overconsumption and in fact does potentially harm vulnerable segments of our society.
My solution would be to withdraw this legislation, but I recognize that some people might really want to know how many calories are in the foods they are buying. An easy compromise that could work for all would be to go ahead and post the calorie content of foods served in the restaurant. But in a different location (a billboard on a side wall, on half the menus, etc.) and not where prices are listed. That way folks who just want to pay without being attacked by the calorie count can do so, and those who really need to know how many calories are in their latte can do so. That’s what I call having your cake and eating it.