Can calorie information tackle Ireland’s growing obesity crisis?

Obesity #1

Photo by Ingo Bernhardt, Flickr.

Most of us don’t question how many calories are in a steaming plate of creamy tagliatelle when out for a meal or while ordering our favourite takeaway, but very soon we will not be able to avoid this. In February this year, Ireland’s health minister Leo Varadkar announced that by 2016 all menus from restaurants, takeaways and any establishments serving food must include the calorie information on the menu.

While statistics show that obesity is a growing crisis in Ireland and something that must be tackled – according to the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) obesity has increased by 67% between 1990 and 2000  –  do we really need to know the calorie count for our meals when we’re eating out? What once in Ireland may have been a monthly treat has now turned into a regular occurrence and with so many people eating a number of their meals outside of the home, will calorie information positively impact on Ireland’s obesity crisis?

Irish Obesity rates are now the second highest in Europe at 23 percent according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. European obesity levels map

2 out of 5 adults are overweight and 1 in 5 children aged between 5 and 12 are overweight or obese.Irish obesity level statistics

“I think there is an issue with passive eating,” says Sinead Shanley a dietician from the Irish Heart Foundation. “There are studies showing after 20 minutes of sitting, there is a massive change in hormones, in your resting metabolic rate, in the calories you burn, in the fat you burn. We are sitting down for much longer, with sedentary lifestyles people are sitting down for at least eight hours a day, and this affects our bodies.”

Obesity may not just be a matter of calories, but of appetites fuelled by the content of our food. Calorie information alone without details of fat, sugar and salt may be missing a big part of the problem. “The overriding message is we are eating too many convenience foods and whether we like it or not, they tend to be high in fat or high in sugar and/or salt,” Shanley says.”Anything that is high in energy and low in nutrition and is eaten on a regular basis makes it really, really difficult to try to control and manage your weight.”

Stacey Machesney, from Glenville Nutrition, agrees that there are many factors contributing to the massive increase in obesity rates in Ireland. “We must look at the overall picture, the increase in fast foods, the accessibility and convenience of cheap processed foods, the increase in the variety of high sugar foods, the cost of the ‘bad’ food compared to the healthy options, taste, increase in sedentary lifestyle, the list goes on,” she says.

While Ireland continues to lose the obesity battle, is it only governments that have a responsibility to keep up the fight? If our changed lifestyles are the main culprit for obesity, then the health sector, the food industry and the education system, among others, need to work together to ensure the problem is dealt with.

“The onus is on the wider community and government to fund and allow charities to go in and implement initiatives and give support,” Shanley says. “It is the responsibility of society, the community and the food industry to try and regulate and make the healthier choices the easier choices. We need to support the individual making the choices.”

People still choose foods based on factors other than health. Machesney recalls: “The Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance carried out a nutrition survey of 1,500 adults between 18 and 90 years of age in 2011 to see what adults are eating. They were given six food choice motives, including taste, cost, health and nutrition, convenience, ‘feel good’ (i.e. mood), and weight control. What do you think was the number one? Taste. Even when adults know about food health they still choose taste over health.”

Rachael from TheCity, spoke with the managers of Joe Burger Jo’Burger on Castle Market Street and Urban Picnic Urban Picnic in George’s Street Arcade about the calorie information on menus and the effects this will have on their business.

Calorie information in restaurants will no doubt help the public on better educating themselves on rough guidelines when eating out, and it is a step in the right direction, but, as Shanley says, “just a step”.  She says the Irish Heart Foundation would particularly like to see an emphasis on informing eaters about salt content: “Overeating and excess calories is a real problem in Irish obesity but this information doesn’t highlight the salt, so that would be a huge difficulty we would have with it. If we reduce our salt intake by half a teaspoon per day it would prevent 900 deaths per year from stroke or heart attack.”

The IHF also recommends a traffic light system which looks at fats and the quality of fats along with calories. “We are looking at what type of fats are in the food. From our point of view the quality of fats is really important and that is missed completely.”

Again, Machesney agrees. “I think it is never too late to make a change. As a society we are getting bigger in numbers and in waist sizes. We need to educate ourselves on what we are eating. It is great adding calorie information to menus but then let us also teach people how to read calories properly. It is not enough to count calories but we need to know what portion is being given to protein, carbohydrates and fat. If we could help people to help themselves we will have a better chance than trying to force change.”

There is also the argument that the implementation of calorie information on the culinary industry will have grave repercussions for small businesses due to cost. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) have an online tool for businesses but Shanley suggests there needs to be more support.

Shanley is, in the end, optimistic. “When calories are displayed, restaurants will make more of an effort to actually change and opt for healthier options because they are exposed,” she says. “The government have said calorie posting was one of a range of measures on obesity planning for 2015 and other measures will be revised like healthy eating guidelines a new obesity policy action plan such as the Health and Wellbeing Operational Plan 2015.”

Looking at calories alone is not enough to ensure a healthy balanced diet but it can help people avoid meals that are extremely high in calories – which will more likely be high in fat, sugar and salt. But the focus needs to be more on overall health. The onus is on everyone from the schools to businesses and everyone in between to make the effort to provide healthy foods and to educate people on healthy eating, which in turn will lead to society making better choices with food.

Experts’ Top 3 tips for a healthy lifestyle

Sinead Shanley, dietician from the Irish Heart Foundation, recommends:

  • Reducing consumption of processed foods. We know now that they are generally the types of foods that are high in the unhealthier fats and also can be high in sugar and salt. Some 65 to 70% of our salt intake comes from processed foods. Freshly prepared food would be number one. That goes from breakfast to lunch boxes to dinners.
  • Keeping fats to a minimum. Keep high-quality fats in your diet, particularly polyunsaturated, which is in line with the Mediterranean style diet and the diet we advocate.
  • Prioritising fibre is key as it reduces your bad cholesterol, makes you feel fuller for longer. It is almost a negative calorie, as the body does not absorb any of the calories from fibre as it simply pushes through the body.

Stacey Machesney from Glenville Nutrition recommends:

  • Eating the Rainbow – ensure you are eating a colourful range of fruits and vegetables.
  • Eating a little protein with every meal to help balance insulin levels and keep you fuller for longer.
  • Measuring your portion size. Many people are overeating without even knowing. The recommended meat portion is the size of a deck of cards.

Links to more information and articles on obesity and the growing crisis in Ireland Storify Irish Obesity and Calorie Info

By Rachael Hussey

One comment

  1. s resolution to get in shape, or slimming
    down for an important event, the weight loss question on most Americans.
    Living a healthy life is a long-term commitment and it requires effort in adjusting one’s lifestyle- activities, habits, diet and all.
    When the weather is hot out you should consume more.

    These types of food calories happen to be food items which come with food calories though provide little to no nutritious value.

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