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Calorie Counting our Lives Away! - Irene Ní Fhlannúra

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The Department of Health is set to bring in legislation that will make it compulsory for food outlets to display calorie details on the menu from next year. 

According to Minister Leo Varadkar “giving calorie details is a very simple but effective way of encouraging people to choose a healthier option”.  The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland also got a word in saying “it is an incredible positive step forward in tackling obesity”.  Despite all the research available to these experts it is an incredible step backwards that this is actually going to go ahead!  Mr. Varadkar goes on to say that “it’s a powerful tool which has proved effective in the U.S”.  Sorry, Leo, I must stop you there!  

Counting calories is about as useful as counting bubbles but not nearly as enjoyable!  If we are to be led by the United States of America, we have already lost the battle against our expanding waistlines.  As the fattest country on the planet, the U.S certainly have more experience dealing with obesity, but in reality, their policies on food production and health education have proven unsuccessful and their obesity levels continue to rise across most demographics. Two-thirds of the American population are either overweight or obese.  The largest percentage of population affected is within the African-Hispanic people suggesting that it is more a problem of social-economic inequalities rather than simply consuming too many calories.  

In nutritional terms, a calorie (Kcal) is a unit of energy, a measurement that quantifies the amount of energy supplied by a given food. It is a mathematical equation that simply estimates the potential energy a food will provide to the body but reveals no other data about that food.  The proposal set out by the Department of Health suggests that foods with a higher calorie count are less healthy than those of a lower count, that a fresh apple is now less healthy than a can of diet soda? If this message was delivered by the food industry, it would be comical – but that it comes from our Department of Health is misleading and irresponsible.  There are a myriad of attributes that make a food healthy – most obvious is that it is actually a food, a source of nourishment from nature. Recognizable and clearly identifiable would be a decent rule of thumb.  The dominance of the processed food industry in society and the half-hearted efforts by health departments and food industry watchdogs are at the crux of our current obesity crisis.  The failure to promote a natural wholefood diet over profiteering is not only making us fatter, but sicker too!  Who benefits?  Certainly not the public.

Individual choices about eating and physical activity are critical to obesity prevention.  However, these choices are ultimately made within a system that influences what is available.  Foods that are the most profitable are those that ship well, have a long shelf life, and can be branded. This means that the food market is flooded with processed, packaged foods. More and more supermarket space is dedicated to processed foods.  Incidentally, all these packaged foods have had calorie counts on them for years but that has had no impact on obesity as it is not the calories that are the determining factor when it comes to food choices – ultimately it is the cost.  

Since 1970, the cost of producing fruit and vegetables has increased at a faster rate than inflation making them more expensive relative to processed food items.  There are little or no incentive to growers to produce quality, chemical-free foods.  This makes many fruits and vegetables even more expensive than fizzy drinks. Food processing and the policies that support it has not only created a flawed food supply but has replaced our indigenous food resources with easy, accessible food that allows us to eat more often and to eat more overall.  Who benefits? Certainly not the public.

According to the Restaurant Association of Ireland, calorie counting the menu will cost between €5,000 -€10,000 to the average restauranteur. Yet again, policy favours the bigger, fast food outlets as it is easier to keep track of the calories from the unvarying stream of manufactured junk they serve.  For the average restaurant however, it is not an easy task as they are more likely to be dependent on fresh food supply which varies from day to day.  Irish restaurants are applauded for the quality of their food and have seen a huge shift in recent years towards local and seasonal produce.  It is ironic that this new law will become an obstacle to restaurants and discourage them to change their menu depending on available produce.  Instead, the temptation will be for a generic menu that will inevitably be focused on calorie content rather than the quality and flavour for which we are famed.  Who benefits? Not the restaurant, not the local producers and certainly not the public.

Irene Ní Fhlannúra, Nutritional Therapist at Ré Nua Nutrition Clinic & Health Food Shop, Dingle 086 1662562 - Website: www.renuanaturalhealth.com  

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