Counting the calories in Ontario

A McDonald's menu in Ottawa lists the calorie counts for a single Big Mac, and the range of calories for the meal which includes fries and a drink.  Photo: James Morgan

A McDonald’s menu in Ottawa lists the calorie counts for a single Big Mac, and the range of calories for the meal which includes fries and a drink. Photo: James Morgan

Prices aren’t the only numbers on some restaurant menus in Ontario now. On January 1, a regulation under the Healthy Menu Choices Act came into effect. It requires chain restaurants to display the calorie contents for all food and drink items. Restaurants also have to post a notice outlining what normal daily calorie recommendations are.  The regulations only apply to restaurants with 20 or more locations, so the targets are obviously fast food and other chain restaurants. The new rules are meant to raise awareness about the calorie content of food and to help customers make healthy choices.

I went to a McDonald’s in suburban Ottawa and checked out their menu. The sign said the average adult should take in 2,000 calories per day. I ordered a Big Mac and large fries meal. It’s rated at 681 to 1120 calories.

The calorie content for soft drinks at McDonald's. Photo: James Morgan

The calorie content for soft drinks at McDonald’s. Photo: James Morgan

They assume the customer is going to have a soft drink, but it was really cold outside so I ordered a large hot tea instead. Tea has zero calories but I asked for sugar in mine so that ruined my healthier choice. Even with the Big Mac and large fries, I’d probably went well past my 2,000 calories when added to the other things I’d already eaten that day. My friend Dan accompanied me to the McDonald’s. He agreed that the calorie count law was a good idea, but it didn’t deter either of us in our food choices.

Hot drinks at McDonald's have fewer calories than soft drinks.  Photo: James Morgan

The McDonald’s hot drink calorie chart. Photo: James Morgan

On social media, I asked what people thought of the new menu rules. The reaction was mostly positive among my Ontario friends. Mark from Peterborough said the calorie count on the menu recently led him to order a smaller portion of spaghetti at a restaurant. Brad in Kitchener recently noticed at a coffee shop that a piece of cheesecake contained fewer calories than a muffin, but he ordered the muffin anyway. Jessica from the Stratford area agreed that listing the calories is a good idea for those concerned about their health, but also wondered if seeing the numbers could present challenges for people with eating disorders. Pat from Toronto said listing calories “takes the guess work out of ordering—just like posting prices does.” Jason is from Ontario but now lives in California. He noted that state has required calorie counts on menus for several years but the listings have never influenced his food choices. He suspected the amounts are high for poutine, the French-Canadian dish that is a mixture of fries, gravy, and cheese curds. Ernie in Huron County was the only strong voice of opposition to the calorie count listings.  He called the rule “another example of the nanny state trying to live my life for me.”

The fact that the calorie content is even listed on fast food menus in Ontario reflects how much the attitude towards eating has changed in recent years. Hamburgers, French fries, and soft drinks used to be pretty standard fare for families and highway travelers. Consumers have healthier expectations and that’s led governments to require the restaurant industry to give more information about the health of their products.

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