The salad or the Big Mac? Why the calorie in, calorie out argument keeps failing us – National Post

If you’ve walked into McDonald’s recently with the grandiose plan of ordering a Big Mac, only to end up leaving with a salad, you’re not alone. The illuminated calorie count displays – informing customers that a Big Mac has 520 calories, and an Asian Sesame Fusion salad with crispy chicken has just 410 calories – are nothing if not persuasive.

The ability to coax customers into making seemingly healthier choices with something as straightforward as a sign is great. But while calorie awareness helps provide a sense of dietary understanding, how much do we really understand?

In the case of the McDonald’s salad, after you add the requisite Pure Kraft Sesame Dressing, which has 110 calories, both meals have 520 calories. While a Big Mac has 28 grams of fat and 9 grams of sugar, the Asian Sesame Fusion salad has 31 grams of fat and 14 grams of sugar.

The fact that a McDonald’s salad is less than nutritionally virtuous may not qualify as news, but cumulative caloric information, like the signs at McDonald’s, are only becoming more prevalent on restaurant menus. This year, Ontario became the first province to require all restaurants, fast food eateries, supermarkets, convenience stores and movie theatres serving prepared hot foods with 20 or more locations in the province to provide calorie counts of each item on their menus. Additional provinces are expected to adopt similar nutritional guidelines soon. The calorie listings are intended to serve as dietary roadmaps to guide food choices in the right direction, ultimately aiding increasing rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease, which cost Ontario’s health-care system $4.5 billion annually. Yet as caloric awareness has increased, we seem to have only exacerbated the problem of deteriorating public health.

The Canadian Journal of Diabetes has found that over the last two decades – despite becoming increasingly calorically aware – the average body mass index (BMI) of adult Canadians has increased from 22.3 to 25.3 kg per square meter, a number that puts us in the overweight range. Over the past three decades, obesity rates have roughly doubled across all age groups.

During this time, conventional nutritional wisdom has dictated that a calorie is a calorie, and that calories in versus calories out determines weight gained or lost. While certain foods are acknowledged as more nutritious than others, calories are the ultimate deciding factor when it comes to maintaining a healthy BMI.

However, a growing body of evidence, including a recent paper authored by Harvard Medical School, has found this previously accepted calorie wisdom to be false. The review suggests that cumulative calorie counts are faulty as they ignore the metabolic effects, or how your body responds, to each calorie. These metabolic effects are drastically different depending on whether the calorie is coming from sugar, protein or fat.

Fat contains nine calories per gram, while carbohydrates and proteins contain only four calories per gram. Despite being higher in calories, some fats have a healthier metabolic effect than lower calorie carbohydrates and sugars. This is due to sugars raising blood glucose levels, prompting the body to release insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar. Eating too much sugar can trigger insulin resistance, or the inability to produce adequate amounts of insulin. Insulin resistance often leads to diabetes, prediabetes and other cardiovascular diseases.

Consuming healthy fats has a reverse metabolic effect. Multiple studies, including one published in Annals of New York Academic Sciences, have found that healthy fats like polyunsaturated fatty acids – those found in fish – and monounsaturated fatty acids– those found in avocados – can improve insulin sensitivity and help regulate blood sugar levels. A study published in The American Journal of Scientific Nutrition indicated that the ability of certain fats to regulate blood glucose may actually aid in weight loss. Fats also facilitate the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. For example, the fat in egg yolks allows the body to absorb the vitamin A and D that the yolk is abundant in.

The presence of caloric information as the first and only thing to know about a food erodes at the greater nutritional context of a meal. It also helps legitimize processed foods by presenting them as health-inclined. Calorie labels allow soda companies to proudly boast that cans of soda only have 120 calories, or that candy bars only have 210 calories, all while ignoring what the high level of calories from sugar do to the body’s metabolic function.

Proponents of calorie labels argue that including a greater number of caloric information on restaurant menus and food packaging is better than nothing. While this may be true in a primitive sense, our tendency to view food as a cumulative number has stripped nutrition of valuable nuance and contributed to a false sense of dietary understanding.

Today we have calorically measured food, but there is very little enjoyment – or benefit – to derive from reducing meals to undeveloped figures. Until calorie labels better reflect how foods affect our health as a whole, I imagine those of us who have fallen for the promise of fewer calories, only to have consumed more processed fats and sugars, will be compensated for our efforts with a guilt-free Big Mac.


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