If you live in a part of the world where restaurants are required by law to post calorie counts on their menus, you’re probably feeling more confused than ever before.
As if the act of ordering food off any menu does not already put your decision-making abilities to the test, you are now presented with even more information to factor into your decision-making process.
In The United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires chain restaurants with more than 20 locations to post caloric info next to each item on the menu.
In Canada, starting in Ontario, provinces are passing similar legislation impacting chains and franchises. Restaurants that don’t comply are fined.
In Ontario, the salad chain Freshii publicly opposed these legislative changes, calling the calorie-counting law “overly simplistic”. Freshii issued a press release encouraging customers to “count nutrients, not calories”, stating that “displaying only calories on a menu is misleading for our guests. The Ontario menu labelling legislation is overly simplistic and does not go far enough; it does not tell a holistic nutrition story, nor does it consider the customization demanded by today’s guests.”
In short, there’s a lot of noise out there.
If you Google news coverage across North America on this topic of calorie-counting laws for restaurants, you will find no shortage of proponents on either side of the debate.
You will also find studies that, collectively, are inconclusive on whether displaying calorie counts actually changes behaviour, reduces obesity rates, or improves population health.
An actually perceivable, direct benefit of displaying calorie counts may be that it holds restaurants more accountable to what they put into their foods. It forces restaurants to be more transparent with their customers, and to rethink how they formulate foods with unjustifiably high calorie counts.
To help alleviate some of the noise and confusion affecting your restaurant experience, here are some easy principles you can apply to ordering from menus with calorie counts:
1. Focus on quality, not quantity
Nutrient-dense foods can be high in calories. In this case, quality (nutrients, ingredients) trumps quantity (calories). Prioritize the quality.
For example, a high-calorie meal containing lots of fresh and whole ingredients with nutrient-dense foods like meat, nuts, and seeds could present as a high-calorie meal, but it will have a completely different effect on your body and digestive system than a fast-food meal of equivalent calories.
The higher quality meal will yield a greater rate of metabolization for conversion into energy and nutrients for your body.
2. Use calorie counts as a proxy
You can use caloric info on menus as a proxy for uncovering hidden and highly processed ingredients. If the number of calories looks usually high relative to the food item, chances are, it is filled with hidden processed ingredients you don’t need in your body like white sugar, syrups, and flours.
3. Take daily caloric intake guidelines with a grain of salt
Or just don’t follow them at all. Eat by listening to your unique body’s needs and understanding how your metabolism works. Eat for energy and nutrients, not by following a one-size-fits-all number.
4. When in doubt, order items made up of simple ingredients
If you’re still stuck on what to order, look at the ingredient composition of the item. Prioritize the items on the menu containing simpler ingredients that you can see and pronounce, and that are fresh and whole.
In sum, don’t count on counting calories. It paints an incomplete and oftentimes misleading picture.
While calorie counts are not entirely useless, if you want to use the info at all, it should be as a tool to uncover hidden information about the quality and make-up of your food.
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