Food In Numbers

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Too Much Junk Food?

Last week, an article in Macleans, a Canadian weekly news magazine, caught my eyes: “Despite alarming rates of obesity in Canada, you won’t see calorie counts on menu boards any time soon. Unlike the U.S., there’s just no political will for it.” According to one of the doctors quoted in the article who supports better nutritional information in Canadian restaurant, “When we go shopping for things we look at price tags before we buy them so we can determine whether they’re worth it to us. When we eat things, the currency of our weight is calories.”

This makes a lot of sense to me. Yet, as a former French, I can’t help wondering why such debate is even taking place.

I explained a few time how surprised I was when I first came to Canada and realized that we didn’t eat very well and that the unhealthy relationship with food was one of the unpleasant reality of life in North America. It took me a long time to learn how to eat in Canada. Yes, I gained weight when I first came here but I also lost it naturally when I understand that food was a tricky thing here.

Unlike in France, eating in North America is not just a daily task that involves commonsense and balance. It involves resisting the temptation of “cheap and fast foods” and getting used to split these giant food portions in two (doggy bag, anyone?). And yes, it requires reading labels.

You won’t find any nutritional information on products in France. I guess it doesn’t matter that much because most people follow a commonsense diet, or at least try to: eat more veggies than Nutella, nibble on bread but go easy on the mayonnaise, enjoy some dessert but a small portion of it. But in North America, a lot of restaurants offer super-fatty dishes.

Let’s consider that most people need around 2,000 calories a day. Can you believe a friggin’ carrot cake is 820 calories at Denny’s? That the Chocolate Chip Cookie Sundae is 1,660 calories at Applebee’s? At 500 calories, it makes McDonald’s large French fries look like a healthy meal!

Some comments below MacLeans’ article pointed out that that people should be smart enough to know that eating in fast-food joins everyday and drinking Coke constantly is not good for them. In short, yes, I agree. But it’s not that easy. Plenty of foods we think are “healthy”, that are even sometimes marketed as such, have an appealing nutritional content. Point in case, soups: for instance, Kelsey’s French onion soup is 450 calories, and at Dennys, the broccoli soup is 375 calories – this is three times more than any soup I eat at home.

Like the article explains, estimating calories in a meal isn’t always intuitive. What do you think is “healthier” at first glance: vegetarian Pad Thai noodles or fish & chips? Well, apparently, at Casey’s, the fish & chips is 330 calories, while the Thai noodles 740 calories. You can be truly shocked learning how many calories are in some seemingly innocuous food. I’m sorry, but something as simple as a cookie shouldn’t be as much as 1,000 calories, half of one’s recommended diet.

Now of course, people are free to eat whatever they want. Hell, it’s not like I’m a model myself: I love chocolate, I could eat pasta every day and life without bread would look plain to me. Yet, I had no problem cutting some food from my diet when I learn how “bad” they were. For instance, I learned that almost all bakery items at Starbucks sound healthy (oat bar, carrot cake, scone…) but they average 200 – 600 calories, way more than I expected. How did I learn that? Well, thanks to nutritional information posted. 

Now, here is a question to ponder: how do these restaurants come out with these kinds of foods, and why?

Why do fancy coffees come topped with four inches of whipped cream and syrup? Why do burgers come with two, three even four beef patties, with bacon strings in between? Why do croissants need to be dipped in chocolate and cinnamon? Why are pasta dishes in restaurants often dripping oil? Some will argue it tastes better but honestly, do we really need that many “adds-on” to enjoy a meal?

I honestly can’t think of a single good reason to not make restaurants post nutritional information. Unless they don’t want us to know what we eat…?



About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. A very interesting post, but how to comment? You know I’m from Norway and even hate fast food – so I understand non of this things of food in numbers! Is this because we are so fare from nature and mankind origin, that we have forgotten why we eat: to get what we need of vitamins, proteins etc. and even more: Don’t know what food contains because it changed from the natural stuff to fast pre-made?

    Since you mention France (then Europe), let me give you a story: I was in Rome (Italy) once – and you know they have great food traditions too. There was a lot of charming and nice restaurant in an old district with narrow streets climbing up a hill. After a lovely meal at one of them, back to the hotel, I passed a McDonald – well that wasn’t the worst, but there was even people inside eating? ( hope I make sense in this!)

    Btw dear blog friend: Sorry for being absent for a while. Of course I could have written a lot of excuses, but I guess the most important is to assure you I haven’t forgot you (and do appreciate all you’re nice comments on mine)!

  2. Yes eating is a tricky business. I admit to buying my lunch a bit too often in the afternoon time. A result of a lot of stress and bad planning, however we are quite good about making breakfast and dinner ourselves and as you have seen in countless of Rennys posts (on my cooking!) we make them like the French out of fresh seasonal ingredients. Clean fish, new carrots, fresh potatoes, and if there is fat (and there usually is) it is coming from cream or virgin olive oil. I believe the best is to use good ingredients. However I am in favor of labeling fast food because many do fall into that trap, from time to time or a little too often, and it can help us make an intellegent choice, of maybe just maybe when we see that those fries are 500 calories we think, maybe I will just pick up a yogurt instead!!!

  3. Not sure about Canada, but in the US, the extra large (or supersize) soda (soft drink) offered in fast food outlets really shocked me.

    I think it is OK to eat all those stuff. Just mind the portion.

  4. I think the root of the problem, which you touched on a bit, is that, at least in the US, a lot of people don’t cook at all or only rarely. It’s much healthier to make fresh food yourself at home and control how much fat and salt go into it rather than just going out to eat at a restaurant, buying something from the cafeteria at lunch, or getting one of those frozen meals. It’s certainly much easier to have someone else cook for you and most people are so busy and stressed that they don’t have time to cook, but it’s definitely not as healthy!

    And as for why we need things like super sugary pastries and huge hamburgers, it’s because they taste good! In moderation, of course.

  5. That is why I am trying to self-cater all the time and reduce my eating out occurrences. A lot of extra calories seem to be coming from the over-sized portions and the preservatives that outside food has.

  6. It seems to me that many people see food as something emotional so they eat more than they should expecting to be filled up not only physically but emotionally. Kind of like an addiction. That this happens in North America it might be a sign of a deeper problem than obesity itself.
    It always amazes me when I go to a restaurant, I am stuffed and they still offer me a huge piece of cake.
    I guess some the restaurants that come up with outrageous desserts and food might know that some people need to fill not only their stomachs but their psyche also. It is not as easy as saying “people should know what is bad for them” when you are dealing with an emotional issue.

  7. I swore off fast food some years ago. The last time I had a McDonald’s burger, many months ago, it was so bland and lifeless I almost called a paramedic for it. I do succumb and have junk food occasionally, but only if there’s nothing else around and there just isn’t time for anything else, and that’s quite rare.

  8. When I went back to the US last July, the first thing I heard on the news while walking through the Detroit airport was that people were starting to eat chocolate-covered bacon. I couldn’t believe it. Well, actually I could, but I still wanted to puke.

    I love the abundance of choices and variety of food in North America, even if it can be extremely unhealthy. But I just don’t eat that stuff! I like that the choice exists, but I don’t overdo it or abuse it, unlike a lot of other Americans who have no self-control.

    It may be easier to eat healthier in Europe, but I find the food here lacking flavor and variety and imagination. I get so bored with the same stuff over and over again.

  9. @RennyBA’s Terella – No matter how good local cuisine is, people will go to fast food – I’ve seen packed Mcdonalds across the world. But I think you are right, we did forget where we came from and the way we are supposed to eat.

    @DianeCA – You seem to be a great cook, from what I’ve seen on Renny’s blog! Buying lunch isn’t really a problem (or at least it doesn’t have to be) as long as your diet is balanced, and it looks like you are all good on that side!

    @khengsiong – Portions in the U.S are even bigger than in Canada – I notice it every time we cross the border. And it certainly is part of the problem.

    @Soleil – You are right, I can’t believe how many people even at work live on these lean cuisine microwave meals – and it looks so gross to me, not to mention they are expensive! I guess I’m still French, I always have the reflexe to cook something rather than take out.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – Yes, I think you mentioned the two main reasons.

    @Jorge – Very interesting! Yes, you are right come to think of it, food does seem to be emotional for a lot of people. It probably explain why people eat all the time – at the movie, in the car, while shopping… this was so weird to me at first. You are right as well about the dessert – it’s extremely rare I order dessert in a restaurant because I’m invariably stuffed, and I always wonder who has room for these huge piece of cakes. Don,t get me wrong, I love cakes, just not after a huge meal!

    @Ghosty Kips – I stopped eating McDonalds many years ago, when I realized burgers could actually be a tasty thing – beef patties in fast food are just gross though.

    @shionge – Oh yeah, going to an American Walmart for the first time is always an experience…!

    @Jennie – I grew up in France so I don’t notice this, but food is definitely less salty, it may be why it tastes bland to you. Les ethnic food as well. And chocolate-covered bacon? That is just… gross.

    @London Caller – Phew. Glad I don,t eat Kit Kat 😆

  10. Speaking of food portions.. Let’s say..McDonald in Canada compared to McDonald in China. Any difference?
    I keep hearing about bigger food portions but it’s kinda hard to imagine.

  11. Hi Zhu

    I just read : chocolate cover with bacon : yukkkkkkkkkkkk !!!
    It must be pretty difficult to actually show the nutrional facts outside small restaurants but for chains like Pizza Hut, or other restaurants where the food is always the same, it should be easy no ?
    If only they want to .

    You’re right, there’is so much more weird food in Canada, tempting yummy yucky unhealthy food, easy take away, that’s eay to put on weight and forget about simple cooking.

  12. Your food posts are always some of my favorites. I just read Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and I highly recommend it as a non-preachy eye-opening look at food and our relationship with food in the United States. I’m pretty sure much of it is applicable to Canada as well, since we both have fast food, processed food, obesity, etc.

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