Will calorie counts on restaurant menus help tackle obesity?

Health Minister James Reilly last week performed the official launch of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s new on-line calorie calculator to help businesses in the food undustry to calculate the calorie contents of their menus.

The tool, MenuCal, is the first of its kind in Europe.

However, heart and stroke charity Croí are questioning whether menu labelling and proposals to make such labelling mandatory, will actually yield real results when it comes to educating the public about their food choices and getting obesity, particulary childhood obesity, under control.

The charity is currently piloting a simplified menu labelling system in restaurants in the west of Ireland which flags certain choices as healthy.

They are also piloting a programme in Mayo, in association with HSE West, which sets out to teach children how to read food labels and understand portion control and healthy eating.

Croí specialist cardiac dietician Claire Kerins said the aim of menu labeling is to empower consumers to make better choices. However, it is a relatively new concept and evidence is still emerging on the impact this approach will have on eating behavior.

“Calories can be misleading,” said Ms Kerins. “For example, all fats are high in calories, however bad fats increase cholesterol and your risk of certain diseases, while good fats protect your heart and support your overall health. There is limited research currently available in Ireland that proves that calorie display on menus influence the consumer’s food choice.”

Croí’s ‘Healthy Ways’ pilot programme in the west of Ireland is a menu analysis and awards scheme which uses visual and colourful symbols to help guide menu selection of healthier options.

There are five ‘Croí Healthy Ways’ awards for Cholesterol Friendly, Blood Pressure Friendly, Weight Friendly, Diabetic Friendly and Heart Healthy dishes.

Dishes achieving a ‘Healthy Ways’ award provides the consumer with a guaranteed assurance that the dish has been nutritionally analysed and is suitable for their lifestyle needs.

Furthermore, Croí is piloting a schools programme in Mayo in association with HSE West Mayo PCCC which involves teaching children how to read food labels, encouraging portion control and understand healthy eating.

In recent years, Ireland has experienced a dramatic increase in obesity with up to 80,000 people now classified as morbidly obese.

Most worrying of all, is the epidemic of childhood obesity with some studies indicating that the number of overweight children has trebled over the past 10 years.

Eating away from home is associated with higher calorie intake and excess weight gain, and Irish adults are now consuming 24 per cent of their total energy from food and drink in this way.

With cardiovascular disease being the number one cause of death in Ireland, Croí maintain that consumers urgently need assistance in making heart-healthy food choices.

For more information visit www.croi.ie

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