Calories on menus could seriously harm your health!
The Government’s latest requirement for businesses in England with over 250 employees is to provide calorie information on non packaged food and soft drinks at the point of customer choice i.e. on menus both physical and online. The requirement comes into force from April 2022. This means that when you eat out at a restaurant where that business has over 250 employees, calorie information will have to be displayed on the menu. The same rule applies for take-aways, cafes and food delivery platforms.
The government’s justification for this requirement is it will make it easy for people to make healthier food choices and help people to achieve and maintain a healthier weight. This statement highlights their misunderstanding of nutrition, human physiology and health.
The calorific value of a food is calculated by placing a sample of food in a sealed container, called a ‘bomb calorimeter’, igniting it with electrical energy and burning it to ash. During this process, the stored energy in the food is released. The calorific value of the food is determined by how much this released energy raises the temperature of water.
The first issue with calories as a measurement useful to health is the fact that our digestive systems are not bomb calorimeters. They are not sealed units where spontaneous combustion occurs. We are human and our digestive systems work quite differently!
Secondly, our bodies use energy to digest and assimilate food and not all foods we consume will require equal amounts of energy for this to occur. Calorie measurements do not take this into account. A simple carbohydrate requires very little digestion as it is already in its simplest form of a mono or disaccharide. A complex carbohydrate can contain hundreds of chemical bonds that need to be broken during the digestive process. This requires much digestive effort. Yet all carbohydrates are given the value of 4 calories/g.
Thirdly calories do not take into account the impact of foods on satiety. Whilst carbohydrates and protein have a stated value of 4 calories/g, fat has a value of 9 calories/g. Proteins are complex molecules consisting of chains of amino acids. They require much digestive effort and therefore not only will use significant energy in digesting them but also provide satiety as they remain in the stomach for longer. Fats also promote satiety. Simple carbohydrates do not promote satiety but instead pass through the digestive system quickly, raising blood glucose levels which if consistently high leads to fat storage and weight gain. A lack of satiety also leads to overeating which is what we are trying to avoid.
Another reason why calories on menus aren’t a good measurement to encourage healthy eating and weight loss is that if you’re trying to reduce caloric intake you are more likely to be drawn towards choosing low fat and high carbohydrate foods; these are the foods that will give you 4 calories /gram vs the 9 calories/g for fat. Choosing carbohydrate foods may result in high blood sugar levels with a subsequent fall leading to mood swings, hunger from lack of satiety, irritability, and overeating. Consistent high blood sugar levels from carbohydrate intake can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome. Exactly the health crisis we have already!
Let’s compare some foods. In an avocado with calories of 322, 77% come from fat, 4% from protein and 19% from carbohydrate, of which much is complex carbohydrates in the form of fibre. The impact on blood sugar levels is minimal with a resulting glycaemic load of 4. Glycaemic load is a measure of how a food impacts blood sugar levels; the lower the score the less impact it has. Compare this to a Kellogg’s cereal bar with calories of 137 and a glycaemic load of 18. The glycaemic load is high because 77% of the calories are being contributed by carbohydrate and a significant amount of them are simple sugars. A focus on calories can easily encourage food choices that have a negative impact on metabolic health.
Of course, if we intake food beyond our physiological needs we will store fat and put on weight. However, making food choices based on calories is not a healthy approach to weight control and will not tackle the health crisis but rather exacerbate it. Eating should be about enjoyment and socialising. The mental health crisis has risen sharply during lockdown including eating disorders. Including calories on menus will drive disordered eating and mental health into a further downward spiral and is dangerous for those with eating disorders. This government implementation of including calories on menus will negatively impact physical and mental health.
Read the government guidance here; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/calorie-labelling-on-menus-to-be-introduced-in-cafes-restaurants-and-takeaways