Menu Calories – A letter to the Minister of Health
Dear Minister of Health
In response to the proposed legislation to include calories on all restaurant menus, and as a practicing nutritionist, please let me present my case:
Calories do not reflect the true nutritional value of a food. A calorie is a measure of the energy released by a food during cellular respiration, it tells you nothing about the nutrient content of the food. Nutrient content can be broken down into two categories – Macro and Micro. In terms of macronutrient content, the key players are carbohydrate, protein and fat. It is the macronutrient content of the food that governs it’s physiological and endocrinological response which is what governs overall health and ultimately body composition. A food containing 100% carbohydrate versus a food containing 20% carbohydrate will cause a much greater insulin response. One of insulin’s functions is to cause the esterification of fatty acids and inhibit lypolysis. This is obviously counterintuitive to the objective of a person suffering from obesity as it will reduce their rate of fat loss. Protein and fat apart from being essential nutrients do not affect insulin in the same way. In fact, protein is known to stimulate glucagon which increases fat metabolism as well as controlling satiety. Fat is known to stimulate hormone sensitive lipase which converts stored triglycerides in adipose tissue into free fatty acids. This is a huge topic area which would require further discussion but it is suffice to say that the macronutrient ratio and quantity is what governs weight gain and weight loss. The signals then in terms of appetite hormones and metabolic responses are what determine the overall calorie intake of the individual i.e. it is not the calories that control hormones and metabolism but rather the actual type of food. There are countless studies and research papers to support this claim which I have attached as references.
Thus, the macronutrient make up of the food is critical to know in order to determine its affect on body composition yet the calorie content of the food tell us nothing about this. It also tells us nothing in terms of essential nutrient content, nutrients which the body is unable to produce and must obtain from foods. Certain amino acids and fatty acids cannot be manufactured by the body and (in relation to obesity) are needed for various metabolic functions that govern weight loss. Aside from the macronutrient content, another lack of information provided by calories is the micronutrient content of the food. Certain nutrients such as Vitamin D, B12, K and minerals such as Iron, Zinc and Magnesium also have various crucial metabolic functions which can also control weight loss. A total calorie content of a food gives us no indication as to the nutrient density of the food which is not only directly related to weight loss but also overall health and the prevention of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
In order to put this in context, below is a hypothetical situation based on the proposed menu calorie model
|Main Course||Main Course|
|Description||Venison on pureed cauliflower with braised red cabbage||Penne Pasta with low fat cheese and low fat dressing|
Based on the above information, the customer would be led to believe that the Pasta dish is the healthier option particularly in terms of weight management. However, if we were to look at the macro and micronutrient content the information would be as follows:
|Venison (6oz) Main Course||Pasta (80g) Main Course|
|Protein Content||35g – 30%||10g – 13%|
|Carbohydrate Content||20g – 18%||55g – 73%|
|Fat Content||25g – 50%||5g – 15%|
|Micronutrient Content||Iron – 5mg Zinc – 8mg
Magnesium – 40mg
Potassium – 350mg
Selenium – 18mg
Vitamin B12 – 3mcg
Choline – 150mg
Vitamin K – 2mcg
|Iron – 2mgZinc – trace
Magnesium – trace
Potassium – trace
Selenium – trace
Vitamin B12 – 0
Choline – 0
Vitamin K – 0
Based on the information above we can see that the pasta meal contains 73% carbohydrate versus 18% for the venison dish. Thus, the pasta meal would have a much greater impact on the insulin response resulting in less fat breakdown and more fat storage. The higher protein and fat contents of the venison meal would also mean greater beneficial outcomes in terms of hormonal triggers and appetite signals. Finally, the overall micronutrient density of the venison meal is far greater than that of the pasta dish. Suffice to say that as regards weight regulation and body composition as well as metabolic health, the venison dish would be a preferable meal choice for the obese or even health conscious individual.
There are always other variables to consider and this is only a simple example of a complex issue. However, there can be no question that the health rating of a food, particularly in relation to obesity, should not and cannot be determined by its overall calorie content. The calorie model cannot be even seen as a “step in the right direction” or even “better than nothing”. If an obese individual or a borderline type 2 diabetic with insulin resistance were to continually choose the lower calorie but higher carbohydrate/lower fat/protein meal, then their condition is likely to worsen. Thus, I cannot see for any reason from a nutritional or health perspective as to why the calorie content of a meal should be displayed on menus.
The information which should be provided for the public in terms of how to nutritionally assess food needs a thorough review. In fact, the root cause of the obesity epidemic in Ireland is what really needs to be addressed and re-educating the public on food and nutrition is certainly one of the most important steps which need to be taken.
Is mise le meas,