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Does calorie counting really work?

News | Adelaide Bariatric Centre

19 Aug 2013 11:02 AM

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For decades, women’s magazines have touted calorie counting as the key to weight loss. Energy consumed should be less than energy burnt if you want to lose fat, they say. But how effective is calorie counting on a psychological level? It seems the general public doesn’t understand just how to interpret nutritional information, even when it’s right before them.

To discover how nutritional labelling affects consumer choices, a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University examined the behaviour of more than 1,000 McDonald’s customers in New York. The results were surprising to those who hoped menu labelling would combat obesity in the western world.

Consumers were no more likely to reduce their energy consumption when McDonald’s menus were nutritionally labelled than when they had no calorie information whatsoever. Even when the recommended daily intake was listed beside the information, there was no average change. The study has experts asking whether food labelling really helps as much as they thought it would.

“Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t appear to be helping to reduce consumption very much, even when we give consumers what policymakers thought might help: some guidance for how many calories they should be eating,” said the study’s lead author, Julie Downs.

“Making the information available on menus may have other beneficial effects, such as motivating restaurants to change their formulations. But it may be unrealistic to expect many consumers to keep such close, numeric track of their food intake by using the labels directly.”

Are star ratings a better way?

Ms Downs proposed that perhaps consumers simply didn’t understand how to interpret or apply nutritional labelling. It’s an idea that the Australian government has been exploring by focusing on a star rating system in addition to traditional nutritional information. Under the new, voluntary system, packaged food will have star ratings on the front to indicate its healthiness. Expect to see the ratings on Australian foods in coming months, since the system was officially approved in June.

Australian Medical Association president, Dr Steve Hambleton, has spoken out to encourage the Australian Food and Grocery Council to fall in step with the government’s recommendations.

“Tackling the high rates of overweight [Australians] and obesity in Australia requires a range of measures, including improving our patterns of food and drink consumption,” he said.

“Consumers must be empowered to identify and choose healthy food, and research shows that the health star rating system is an easier and more effective way to improve consumer choices. Governments must now bring the industry into line by making the system mandatory.”

Do bariatric patients need to count calories?

Before surgery, you will need to severely restrict your energy intake in order to shrink your liver, but this practice of counting calories does not necessarily have to continue after surgery.

While some clients choose to count calories after surgery, not everyone has to, according to our dietitian Nick Wray. Given that the stomach is smaller, it’s more about portion control, eating clean, and getting all the right nutrients. That said, it is important to be cautious with calorie-rich foods, as these usually contain too many carbohydrates and bad fats. Rest assured, after bariatric surgery you don’t need to be spending your days calculating every kilojoule that goes down your throat.