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The Big Fat Calories Debate

Minister for Health James Reilly probably has more pressing matters on his mind at the moment, but it’s too much to hope that his proposal for calories on menus will just go away. Once the political air has cleared, it will probably be back to haunt us – and Philip Boucher-Hayes’ thought provoking RTE programme ‘What’s Ireland Eating?’ has certainly put the spotlight right back on the whole question of obesity, so that could be sooner than we think.

The arguments for and against calories on menus are well worn at this stage but it seems crazy to take such a random and simplistic approach to the very complex problem of obesity. In fact I should think Michael Kelly’s phenomenally successful Grow-It-Yourself scheme is doing more for the nation’s health (mental as well as physical) than anything the powers that be are coming up with.

Like many other well meant proposals, the calories on menus scheme could have unforeseen side effects. For a start, the difficulty of giving accurate information on anything except unchanging laminated menus (as used in fast food outlets) is a genuine concern – and, more worryingly, forcing chefs to comply will discourage them from making frequent menu changes and stifle creativity, which is the last thing we need. And what are the chances it will work anyway?

Now I’m no stick insect, and neither is James Reilly – but we both know very well which are the less fattening choices on menus when we are eating out. We also share an interest in health and nutrition so, as well informed people, we should be making wise choices – right? But the evidence on our waistlines suggests otherwise. If that’s the case for people like us, what chance the population at large is going to take a blind bit of notice?

However, there was a suggestion floated in the social media which, although intended sarcastically at the time, might actually have some merit. On the lines of “what next, will customers go in and order the ‘750 calorie menu please’”, it could be a good idea for restaurants to provide an extra menu section offering (frequently changed) calorie-counted 3-course meals, so concerned customers – including anyone following a specific low-calorie diet – could opt for that in the same way as they can currently have, say, a vegetarian or gluten-free meal.

Instead of wasting time and money on enforcing calories on menus, meanwhile, the government would do well to find realistic ways of addressing some of the issues raised by the ‘What’s Ireland Eating’ programme, particularly regarding children. Lifetime eating habits are known to be established at a very young age, ie in the pre-school years; this was confirmed in the documentary, plus the horrifyingly logical additional information on the damage obese mothers do to their babies by before birth. We should be pulling out all the stops to ensure a healthy start for our children: what’s the point of holding a children’s rights referendum while we knowingly allow what amounts to widespread food abuse against our youngest citizens?

Mindless eating and grazing on high calorie snacks came across in the Boucher-Hayes programme as the most serious underlying problem in the nation’s eating habits – and the terrifying truth about the ‘visceral fat’, that we generally think of as no more than a bit of a cushion around the waist, should be enough to motivate some self-discipline in anyone.

Unfortunately, another theme of the programme was the depressing suggestion that humans don’t have much access to self disciplines because our long history of food shortage has programmed us to keep eating while food is plentiful…. But we have to find ways to control our own behaviour – and it was interesting to hear a distinguished US cancer expert deliver the reassuringly commonsense comment that ‘yes, it all still comes down to moderation, that remains the advice I would give’.

My mother, who was a domestic science teacher in the days when life skills were given a key role in the school curriculum, always said that it was essential to establish good eating habits in infancy and early childhood: four hour feeds, balanced home-cooked family meals with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and no snacking were all part of her mantra. While we may have fallen by the wayside in our teens when peer pressure ruled, all of her children reverted to those well-learned tastes in adulthood and none could be described as obese, not even myself. While a stone or two would certainly be better lost, considering the hazards of the job – not only ‘dining for Ireland’ but also too many hours at the computer – people often express surprise that I’m not actually a Ten Ton Tessie! I know I have my parents’ disciplines to thank for that and, although I’ve never snacked, have now made a resolution to keep a closer eye on portion size…

Georgina Campbell


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