Calorie Labelling is all about making Politicians look good – not you.

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The Victorian government is forcing fast food restaurants to tell us how many calories are in their meals. Premier Brumby says this will “drag back” the “runaway train” of Type II Diabetes. But the science says there isn’t any real point to showing us how many calories are in a burger (or anything else). And the evidence (from places that have already been there, done that and bought the T-shirt) is that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to what we eat anyway.

Most food contains 4 calories of energy per gram of food. The exceptions are fat (which has 9 calories per gram) and alcohol (which has 7). So a difference in the calorie content of two similar weights (or serves) of food really is just another way of saying one has more fat than the other (or more booze, but I don’t think anyone is worried about that at Macca’s).

We are exceedingly efficient at using our calories. The 150 calories in a glass of apple juice would let us ride a bicycle 8 km, but the same energy (in petrol) would only push a car 250 metres.

Our appetite control is also exceedingly efficient at making sure we don’t consume more calories than we need. Our hormones are so sophisticated they can even tell the difference between fat calories and calories from everything else (and adjust accordingly).

The science says sugar contains an appetite hormone disruptor (called fructose). With sugar in our diet, our bodies can no longer tell when we have had enough calories. Sugar gives our bodies permission to keep on eating and we don’t stop until we are physically restrained by the size of our stomach (or jeans). When that problem, well, passes, our broken appetite control gives us permission to keep eating until we’re stuffed again.

The result is that we are eating way too many calories, but fabulous as they are, our hormones can’t read a calorie sticker slapped on a board out the front of a KFC (even assuming any of us really knew how many we were supposed to be eating anyway). Our broken appetite control is the reason that Diabetes (and obesity) is a run-away train, not a lack of calorie labelling.

Because all a calorie really measures is (relative) fat content, the processed food industry isn’t all that bothered about calorie labelling. They’ll happily slap a calorie count on a can of soft drink (full of appetite hormone disruptor) because they know it comes out looking pretty good next to an equivalent quantity of milk (soft drink – 150 calories v unflavoured milk – 240 calories).

The sugar in the soft drink will make us want to eat more of everything but it’s the milk (which actually fills us up) that comes out looking sorry on a government mandated calorie counting sign. Sugar is effectively invisible on that sign. Indeed they could add more of the addictive substance and not materially affect the calorie count (especially if they use it to replace fat).

The Victorian plan is a straight copy of the calorie labelling laws enacted in New York City in mid 2008. But a Yale and New York University study on the effect of the laws (completed in October last year) showed the effect was exactly – nothing.

The researchers interviewed customers at multiple restaurants in four fast-food chains (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and KFC). They collected 1,156 receipts from customers two weeks before the laws were introduced and four weeks afterwards. A similar population in a state without the law was used as the control.

The locations were chosen because of a high proportion of obesity and diabetes among poor minority populations. So if Premier Brumby’s runaway train theory was correct, these were exactly the people who should react to the signs.

In New York and in the control city, the average customer ordered a meal with 825 calories before the laws came into effect. Afterwards the New York customer had bumped their order up to 846 calories but the control customers were still ordering the same.

People were ordering more calories after signs were introduced! While that’s probably just a statistical anomaly, there’s certainly no suggestion the signs had any effect at all on what people ordered.

Never ones to be troubled by evidence of effectiveness, other states are now piling on to the Victorian bandwagon. The South Australian and New South Wales Governments think it’s a terrific idea and are rushing to implement.

Laws like this fit all the criteria for high visibility politics, so our elected representatives are drooling over them. Every time we walk past a Government mandated calorie sign (and ignore it) we can be reminded how much our politicians are looking out for us.

Everybody wins. The Pollie looks like he cares about our welfare and is on the job. The Nutritionists cheer them on because they are being listened to. And the food manufacturers know it won’t affect sales anyway.

The only loser is – well, ah – us. We will still get fatter and still get Type II Diabetes (but everybody knows those fat chickens will come home to roost on someone else’s watch) – bon appétit!

Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • Belinda says:

    Well said David. The myth of ‘a calorie is a calorie is a calorie’ has been destroyed by so many good scientists, and people like Gary Taubes, but it’s too complex and nuanced for politicians to get their heads around. When did people stop using their instinctive common sense, and decide a glass of fizzy sugary coke made in a factory, would be healthier than a glass of milk?

  • Al Gallo says:

    The National Press Club has registered the following question I’ve sent to both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition:

    Those who care about health are aware that the effects of sugar added to just about any kind of commercially available food, are as devastating as tobacco or alcohol.
    Obesity is the most visible, but diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental disorder drain an enormous amount of public money. To this, we must add its effects on dental health and the high cost to those who can afford proper care.

    Would you be prepared to implement a tax on sugar or any other preventative, health promoting, public money saving ideas in this area?

  • Harry says:

    “Our appetite control is also exceedingly efficient at making sure we don’t consume more calories than we need”

    “With sugar in our diet, our bodies can no longer tell when we have had enough calories”

    “The result is that we are eating way too many calories”

    “The sugar in the soft drink will make us want to eat more of everything”

    Ok, guys. In case you haven’t noticed, David has now conceded that, as far as putting on weight is concerned, calories are king.

    Sure, he reckons that it’s fructose that encourages us to eat too many calories, but he’s finally conceding that it’s overconsumption of calories that is the causal agent in weight gain, with fructose consumption being a contributory variable.

    I actually agree with him. Overconsumption of fructose (which is rife in the standard western diet) will lead to increased hunger, which does encourage overconsumption of calories, which causes weight gain.

    It would be good, David, if you reinforced this point for those followers who are still thinking that, so long as they avoid fructose, they can eat all the calories they like without gaining weight.

    I have to deal with such attitudes from incoming clients on a weekly basis.

  • Georgia says:

    I think Harry has an important point. Eating excessive calories causes weight gain. I have followed the no sugar rule for three weeks and gained 1-2 kgs. This has been an interesting experiment. I have eaten what I have wanted apart from fructose foods (although I allowed 2 pieces of fruit per day). I do think my appetite is different. I still miss honey in my tea. I now intend to reduce calorie intake and continue having no sugar. I already eat mainly “whole food” prepared at home. I have only a few kilos to lose but I am now realizing simply giving up sugar is only part of the answer for me. I’m still convinced fructose is a major contributor to overweight and obesity.

  • Georgia,

    Some people seem to lose lots of weight very quickly and then plateau, some do it slowly and evenly and some lose nothing for months and then suddenly drop.

    When we initially stop eating sugar we still have the sugar cravings, but substitute foods that don’t have any sugar. Then slowly our appetite control returns and what we can eat gets dialed down.

    Breaking the sugar habit is about reseting that appetite control. Weight loss usually won’t happen until that reset has happened (after withdrawal). For some people this all happens in the first week. For others it takes a month (or more). But it always seems to happen if they stick with it.

    Most people know when they have switched into weightloss mode, because meals that they would have previously eaten without a problem are suddenly filling them before they finish.

    Cheers
    David

  • Harry says:

    David,

    I’m disappointed that you’re not being up front about this, and frankly, I don’t know why.

    You still have a strong case to make that fructose disrupts our normal appetite and satiety signals, without having to also claim that it ’causes’ obesity, and conversely, that removing fructose from the diet will, of itself, remedy the obesity epidemic. It’s a bridge too far, David, and you know it.

    So here’s my simple question:

    If a person has been maintaining their weight using a non-fructose diet at say, 3000 calories/day, and that person then adds 1000 glucose calories/day to that diet, will they lose weight, remain at the same weight, or gain weight (ceteris paribus applies, of course)?

  • Harry,

    Fructose is a (appetite control) hormone disruptor. In its absence you would need to determinedly push through the engorged feeling that a functioning appetite control system would enforce (probably until the point of feeling ill). This does not mean you cant do it. If you want to make yourself fat, with determined effort you can do it without fructose.

    In the presence of fructose, this all becomes much easier. Your appetite is reset and fructose itself is metabolised to fat immediately (for most of us). In the presence of fructose you are able to eat much more (of everything) without ever feeling completely full.

    This is exactly why (in the book) I warn that if you ignore your appetite control and eat dextrose (or anything else) when you are not hungry you will put on weight.

    Eliminating fructose returns your appetite control to normal, removes the food cravings and (most significantly) starts to reverse the serious metabolic damage it does.

    Cheers
    David.

  • Harry says:

    Thanks for your reply David.

    It’s now becoming clear where the real source of our disagreement is.

    It’s not in our opinion on excessive fructose consumption causing disruption of normal hunger/satiety signals; we are both in furious agreement here!

    And it’s not in our opinion on the direct cause of mass gain; despite some of your more extravagant postings on the topic, I think it’s now clear that you agree that positive energy balance is a necessary and sufficient condition for mass gain.

    So, where’s the problem?

    Right here >

    You seem to believe that people who over-eat engage in this behaviour in response to only two things: (1)hunger and (2) poor satiety (the so-called ‘homeostatic’ drivers of eating behaviour). And naturally, since excessive fructose consumption elicits these things, you finger fructose as the cause of obesity.

    But here’s the rub:

    Hunger and poor satiety are not the sole drivers of eating behaviour. In fact, in the Western world (read ‘obesogenic environment’), it could be argued that they aren’t even the primary drivers.

    The main non-homeostatic driver of eating behaviour is ‘hedonic’ eating; that is, eating in response to the present and anticipated pleasure derived from the food, not from the need for calories. In today’s modern society, where eating is the cheapest form of entertainment for many people, hedonic eating is a massive driver of obesity (and a huge problem for many of my clients). And by the way, hedonic eating applies as much to a plate of bacon and eggs in hollandaise sauce as it does to a meringue.

    Here’s a link to a full-text journal article that presents an excellent summary on this topic:
    http://www.lowelabs.com/publications/Lowe%20&%20Butryn,%20P&B,%202007.pdf

    Another non-homeostatic driver of over-eating is plain old habituation. Many people follow eating routines (excessive meal frequencies, excessive portion sizes and poor food choices) that have been modelled by other people or by culture at large. For instance, many of my clients report that they habitually eat breakfast every day despite the fact that they don’t feel at all hungry in the morning, and when I ask themn why they eat nevertheless, they reply “because everyone says that it’s the most important meal of the day”.

    The bottom line: fructose consumption influences hunger and satiety, and in turn, influences some people to eat excessive calories. But it’s not the only reason people eat too many calories…it may not even be the primary reason in today’s ‘food-as-entertatinment’ culture.

    As such, fructose is merely one player in the larger game of obesity-causation. I should know..I have multiple ex low-carb disciples as clients who gained tons of weight by over-eating fats (hedonic eating), even though they were avoiding fructose like the plague.

    Folks, avoiding fructose does not give you a ‘free hit’ to eat as many calories from other sources as you wish. Energy balance is the necessary and sufficient condition for body mass determination.

    David, I really do hope that you have the intellectual courage to adapt to new information (as I have had to do many times in my career – scientific ‘knowledge’ is always provisional). I think you’re a good guy with your heart in the right place and I will do what I can to help if you are willing.

    Cheers
    Harry

  • lark says:

    I keep track of my calories and other nutrients with a computer program.
    Doing that helps me avoid eating too much. It keeps me conscious of how much I’m eating.
    I think that research must have shown this is true for people in general.
    Having calorie labels for foods is an excellent idea.
    I do also keep track of my sugar consumption, eat a very bulky very lowfat diet with a lot of vegetables, and _all this together_ keeps me thin.
    There are a LOT of different contributors to obesity!
    I had an obese boyfriend for a while. He ate a very calorie-dense, high-fat diet. Social factors seemed to be a big part of overeating for him. His stepmother would sometimes give him an ENTIRE CHOCOLATE CAKE, which would be gone in a day or so. And he would gorge himself at parties. Apparently he felt that stuffing yourself at parties is what a party is all about, that’s how you bond with other people at the party.

  • Harry says:

    Oh, and by the way this >

    “Fructose is a (appetite control) hormone disruptor. In its absence you would need to determinedly push through the engorged feeling that a functioning appetite control system would enforce (probably until the point of feeling ill)”…

    is absolute hogwash.

    If you are a women wanting to maintain a steady bodyweight at say, 65kgs…you’re going to need to stay somewhere in the vicinity of 2100 cals/day.

    If you eat a standard 3 square meals a day + 2 small snacks, that puts your main meals at about 500 cals each.

    You know how many calories there are in ONE serving of large McDonalds french fries > you guessed it > exactly 500 cals:

    http://caloriecount.about.com/calories-mcdonalds-large-french-fries-i53926

    So according to David’s hypothesis, once you had your one serve of fries fries (fructose free!), you’d be “engorged” and would have to “determinedly push through” this feeling to even take one bite of your burger, let alone take a sip of your drink, a taste of your salad, or heavens forbid, a nibble on your apple pie.

    To all of David’s tribe: ask yourselves, does this sound right to you? Would you really feel “engorged” after one large french fries, and leave your burger, salad, drink, and dessert untouched?

    Reality check please.

    No one’s appetite is so special as to obviate the need for a modicum of self control and discipline.

  • Jane Grey says:

    David
    I gather Harry is a dietitian? Maybe his clients have special problems. I agree with what he says about social cues and hedonic eating. But going fructose-free means that one can cope with these situations more easily.
    I just wish I’d known about fructose years ago. I’ve lost 10 kilos since giving it up, five of these in the first six months. So it wasn’t super fast, but it was very easy.
    Other diets, such as the CSIRO Total Well Being diet, involve cooking special main meals. My family is picky enough as it is and would never have accepted the food involved.
    One go fructose free all by oneself. I occasionally make high fructose deserts for other people but I don’t have to eat them and I don’t.
    I am enormously grateful to you; it makes me sad to see others write in such an abrasive manner.

  • Kirsten says:

    Harry,

    I don’t often eat fast food (too expensive) but last time we did I ordered a quarter pounder with cheese, a small bag of fries and a diet coke (a meal deal thing). As usual, I ate my burger first, and was full up upon finishing it – ate a couple of fries (quite literally) and a few swigs of the drink.

    So out of interest following your last comment I just looked up the calories in the burger – 510!

    http://caloriecount.about.com/calories-mcdonalds-quarter-pounder-cheese-i53977

    I am a 30-something woman – I don’t know my weight but it is likely in the 60-70kg range. I don’t consider myself a light eater either. But I would never eat the fries first because they would leave me too full to eat the actual burger. I can’t believe I’m the only one like that.

  • Kirsten says:

    Oh, and I’m not one of “David’s tribe”, I have no settled opinion on fructose. I just stop by here occasionally to read his articles.

  • Harry says:

    Jane Grey,

    I’m glad that avoiding fructose completely has made it easier for you to maintain the calorie deficit required for weight loss. Please note, however, that complete avoidance is almost always impossible, and always unecessary. As with all things you put in your mouth, even known toxins, it’s all about dose and context. Extreme approaches to diet (such as complete elimination of particular food groups) have a well-documented failure rate and a well-documented connection with generating pathological eating behaviours.

    Oh, and please don’t be sad about my ‘abrasive writing’. It’s much more important to try to learn something than to make faux friends over the internet.

    Kirsten,

    It’s great to hear that a Quarter Pounder with cheese filled you up. A couple of things to note however: you’re definitely in the small minority here. Most people eat their meal at the same time (a bite of the burger, then a handful of fries , and a swig of drink etc.) and have no problems whatsoever eating the whole meal. Secondly, I doubt that you were actually “full” as such; more likely you were satisfied and imposed some mental control over yourself. Otherwise, why did you waste your money and buy the full meal and why did you say that you “as usual” ate the burger first? Perhaps because you had managed to eat the whole meal in the past?

    Reality check please – it ain’t that hard to blow a 500 calorie allotment in one meal, fructose or no fructose. Let’s stop kidding ourselves about one burger or one large fries making us feel “engorged”.

  • Kirsten says:

    Harry,

    I certainly *was* full, I am not one for restricting my food intake.

    In reply to your question about ordering a meal deal – we were out with the kids (5 and 3) getting lunch, stood in a long queue etc and it was simplest and not significantly more expensive to order the meal deal. You’re right though, next time I’ll just order the burger! 🙂

  • Jane Grey says:

    Harry

    Civility is a crucial component of the public good, whether it is between friends, rivals or strangers.

    It’s not just about getting your own message across effectively, it contributes to a civilised and inclusive atmosphere for everyone.

  • Blindman says:

    I recently began following the fructose debate with keen attention until the point I was satisfied it was worth trying out myself. David was proving too hard to ignore but there were others like Dr Robert Lustig who were even more convincing. But like Harry, I didn’t believe that cutting one “food” out would have any noticeable long-term effect nor did I believe that I would suddenly feel full.

    Well, I was wrong.

    After a couple of weeks of cutting almost all fructose out of my diet things started changing. The first and most noticeable change was that every time I ate a large meal (which was my normal behaviour) I would be in pain for some time after the meal. I was beginning to hate eating because it caused me such discomfort. I began eating smaller meals and having longer breaks between meals and the pain reduced. I realised that I was unable to recognise the feeling of being full or hungry because I had no memory of feeling them.

    The second change was that I really can’t drink or eat anything sweet anymore. It just tastes wrong. My very favourite drink, until a month ago, was Strongbow. Now, it tastes like drinking raw sugar syrup. I have begun to really enjoy the simpler tastes of whiskey and tea (not together!)

    The third most important change was I didn’t find myself completely distracted in the late morning and mid-afternoon when my craving for food would kick in. I could sit down to work in the morning and not look up until 1pm or so.

    I wasn’t losing weight, I wasn’t gaining weight. But things where different. Then I decided to start losing weight and actively reduced my caloric intake, simply by eating less during the day. It was a trivial thing to do, caused me no distraction or discomfort and the weight began falling off on a daily basis.

    No, cutting sugar didn’t make me lose weight. Yes, cutting sugar did make it very easy to lose weight.

    Harry, you can bury your head in years of misinformation if you like. Or you could try it for yourself and see what changes in your life. My experience may be unique but I doubt it. It matters little to me what happens to the rest of the world if I am getting healthier by the day and enjoying the process. I am all the proof I need.

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