The Calorie Count Con

Tired of “eat this, not that” advice? Brace yourself for the UK government’s latest “solution”: calorie counts that won’t solve anything and might even make things worse.

This feel-good trend swept through the US and much of Australia over the last decade. Since 2011, many Australian jurisdictions have mandated kilojoule (calorie) counts on menus at chain restaurants. They tout it as a weapon against our obesity crisis, but haven’t the numbers on the scale budged? Nope.

Proof it doesn’t work? A recent Australian study found fast food calorie content hasn’t changed a bit since menus started showing them in New South Wales in 2013. Turns out, those labels do nothing to make the food healthier, they just shift our focus to the wrong problem.

No less than four other Australian jurisdictions have fallen for the same empty promise. They insist this will magically fix our obesity crisis. But there’s one huge, inconvenient fact: calorie counts are useless when our broken appetites are the problem. So why are politicians so eager to embrace this idea?

Here’s the deal: most food provides a predictable amount of energy per gram. That’s why a calorie difference often just means more or less fat. Our bodies handle those calories just fine… until sugar enters the picture. Sugar hijacks our appetite hormones, making us crave more and more, regardless of calories. Slapping a number on a burger doesn’t fix that. Worse, it makes us feel like we’ve done something healthy when we haven’t.

Of course, science rarely stands in the way of flashy pronouncements. Which brings us to New York City, the pioneer of mandatory calorie counts. After years of this policy, guess what? A major study revealed absolutely no change in what people ordered. In fact, they stuffed themselves with even more calories once those numbers were staring them in the face! This complete failure should have sent governments scrambling for a different approach.

Instead, the copycat syndrome has kicked in. The US, most Australian states and now the UK have leapt on the bandwagon, desperate to look like they’re doing something, anything! And why not? It’s political theater at its best. Politicians get to feel virtuous, nutritionists feel ‘heard’ even if their advice is wrong, and food companies? They win twice. Calorie counts neatly focus our attention on fat, obscuring the true villain – the mountains of sugar they’re adding to everything – and they let them replace fat with even more sugar without blowing up the calorie count. A cynical strategy, but effective.

So here we are, the unwitting participants in a grand charade. A charade where we’ll keep getting fatter and sicker, armed with information that not only doesn’t help but gives us a false sense of control. But hey, at least we’ll know exactly how many calories are in that milkshake we shouldn’t be having… as if that’s ever stopped anyone. Bon appétit! After all, the worse this crisis gets, the better our leaders look for pretending to address it, while the food giants rake in the profits.

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