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Food In Numbers

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…?


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