25 Jun 2018

Govt told to consider adding calorie counts to menus

8:39 am on 25 June 2018

A UK move to force restaurants to add calorie counts to their menus is being watched closely here in New Zealand.

bacon cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato

The Ministry of Health in New Zealand is currently reviewing its policy direction for addressing childhood obesity. Photo: 123RF

The UK has announced their new Childhood Obesity Plan, which aims to halve obesity rates within 12 years with tough new measures including banning the sale of unhealthy options at checkouts, a watershed on advertising unhealthy foods and forcing restaurants to reveal calorie counts.

Dr Robyn Toomath, a writer on obesity, welcomed the idea of calorie counts on menus as long as it was part of a greater raft of changes.

"Presumably this is part of a whole suite of things which really signal that the government is prepared to take responsibility for reducing obesity prevalence and it's not just down to individuals making choices," she said.

Dr Toomath said setting a goal for reducing the number of obese children would be a great start.

"I'm waiting for the new government, I'm hopeful this is something that will come into their sights. It was certainly not on the radar of the last nine years of government - it was all up to individuals doing it themselves," she said.

"Just accepting government has a role in controlling the environment is the first big step.

"It's fantastic that we've got an example, my experience is that governments don't like to be the first ones to lead out on a new initiative and the fact that the UK is setting a goal and whole lot of practical steps to deliver against is a bonus - if our government just follows the blueprint, maybe we'll get there."

But while Restaurant Association national president Mike Egan is supportive of moves to reduce childhood obesity, he thinks it would be very complex for individual restaurants to implement calorie counting.

"It's all very well for the big chain restaurants that have lots of resources, but for a small independent restaurant it could be quite onerous, especially if they're a restaurant that is buying food weekly and changing the menu quite often," he said.

"If you asked any chef to do the calories for their menu items, I don't know many that would be able to do that."

Mr Egan said in some American states they had brought in similar legislation, but they had exempted small independent restaurants and focused on the chain fast-food retailers.

"I don't see the obesity problems coming from full service restaurants where you sit down and order from a menu, that's still considered a treat," he said.

He would also like to see research that shows a calorie number on a menu changes or modifies people's behaviour.

"After school, going to get a treat. Do you think that 13-year-old's really going to care if it's 300 calories or 500 calories?" he asks.

Many restaurants with dedicated children's menus were already submitting those to the Heart Foundation and getting the healthy tick or advice on how to make their servings more nutritious, Mr Egan said.

He believes self-regulation is really what is going to be most effective in generating change within the industry.

Dr Caroline McElnay, Director of Public Health, said the Ministry of Health is currently reviewing its policy direction for addressing childhood obesity and as part of that will be looking for effective approaches both in New Zealand and overseas, including the recent initiatives proposed in the UK.

One in eight New Zealand children is obese, while a further 20 percent are overweight.

"In October 2015, the Ministry of Health launched the Childhood Obesity Plan, which includes 22 initiatives designed to reduce childhood obesity," said Dr McElnay.

"Eleven of the 22 initiatives have been completed."

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