When you go to a restaurant, do you want to know how many calories each dish on the menu is? To some extent, most of us are calorie conscious when it comes to eating out. If we are watching our weight, we may decide to skip dessert. We may avoid the butter chicken or skip that greasy biryani. But do we actually want to know the exact number of calories in each dish? Do we care that much?

The British government thinks we do. According to new rules announced in the United Kingdom (UK), restaurants are obliged to list the exact calorie count of every dish on the menu. This does not apply to all restaurants but it does apply to enough of them for them to loudly protest.

The UK press is full of complaints from chefs and from health experts. Before I go into those, here’s what I found most interesting. Contrary to what we have been told, calorie counts for fast food are not always alarmingly high.

A Big Mac and fries from McDonald’s has 850 calories. A pizza from Pizza Express has around 1,000 calories. None of this is low-cal but given that the UK’s recommended daily calorie intake for men is 2,500 calories, you would be well under that limit if you have a Big Mac for lunch and a pizza for dinner. This is not what many of us have been led to believe.

In contrast, food at proper restaurants can often contain more calories. According to The Times (London), Moules Mariniere, a classic mussel dish, at the chef Raymond Blanc’s restaurant contains 1,335 calories or around 50% more calories than a Big Mac and fries. A Sunday roast of beef with all the trimmings has 1,985 calories, almost equal to the recommended daily calorie intake for women (which is 2,000 calories). A nice bit of roast pork with apple sauce and sides actually exceeds the recommended calorie intake for men, coming in at 2,621 calories.

So oddly, enough, it is not the fast food guys who are really upset; it is the proper chefs. They feel that a count of calories next to each dish will lead people to stop eating good food. Indeed, if you were to judge your ideal food intake only on the basis of calories, then you would be better off eating every meal at McDonald’s or Pizza Express than at any Michelin star restaurant.

Among those who have objected to the new rules are many health experts who argue that eating disorders are on the rise and that by focusing attention on calories, their new rules will further aggravate neuroses among young people.

Nor does the UK government’s explanation that those rules will help fight obesity cut much ice. Nobody who orders say, a banana split, thinks of it as diet food. He or she knows it is fattening. Reminding them of the number of calories will make no difference. Besides, say health experts, they have tried printing calorie counts on menus in the United States. It has made no difference to obesity rates, they argue.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that it makes no sense to focus so much on calories to the exclusion of nearly everything else. For a start, the old chartered accountancy model of weight gain has been totally discredited. Forty years ago, nutritionists looked at the human body as a machine. If X number of calories went in and only Y number of calories were consumed through exercise then the difference between input and output (X minus Y) would be stored as fat. So, the trick was to lower the number of calories you consumed.

At an intuitive level, all of us know that this is rubbish. Some people who eat a lot of food seem to never put on weight. People who eat relatively little can be chubby. It’s the same with weight loss. If you put two people on identical 1,000 calorie diets, they will not lose weight at the same rate though the chartered accountancy model says they should.

Science still does not fully understand why we put on and lose weight. It probably does have something to do with calories. But it also has to do with a variety of other factors: Metabolism, genetics and even the bacteria in our guts. So, to act as though a calorie-control approach alone will fight obesity is silly.

But even if you do want to act as though calories are all that matters when it comes to weight loss, that’s still too narrow an approach to nutrition as a whole. All of us should eat balanced diets that include protein, fat and carbs. We need vitamins from fresh vegetables. We need protein from meat and vegetarian sources. If you focus only on calories, you lose sight of this.

And anyway there is now enough evidence to suggest that not all foods cause weight gain in the same way.

Sugars and carbohydrates made through processes of refining (white sugar, maida) cause weight gain more than, say, fish which may actually have more calories. And yet, the calorie-counting approach will push people towards high-carb foods like hamburgers, fries and pizzas.

If you believe that it is the job of governments to make rules that try and influence people’s food choices (and this is still debatable; I am not sure I agree) then you should focus on making people eat fresh, nutritious food. Making them count calories, ironically enough, only helps the fast food industry.


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