Posts Tagged ‘Dietitian’

Calories on Menus – A dietitian’s perspective

October 2, 2012

After a well publicised consultation process which took place during the month of February 2012, a total of 3,390 people had their say. The majority of these (86%) were consumers. Taking into account firmly held opinions from the food industry, other relevant bodies, as well as from many members of the public, The Food Safety Authority Of Ireland launched their report in July. The full report can be downloaded at this link, but

Here are 2 summary paragraphs:

“The calorie on menu scheme is intended to empower consumers to make more informed choices when purchasing foods from food service outlets such as restaurants, bars and cafés. The report’s findings reveal an overwhelming demand by consumers (96%) for calorie menu labelling in all or some food outlets, with 89% saying that calories should be displayed beside the price of food and drink items on the menu. When asked whether calorie labelling should apply to outlets serving alcoholic drinks, 84% of consumers said calorie labelling of alcoholic beverages should apply in all or some outlets.

Nearly three in four food service businesses (73%) were in favour of calorie menu labelling in all or some food establishments. However, when considering the technical aspects of implementing such a scheme, the numbers of food businesses in favour of calorie menu labelling fell to just over 50%. The main concerns food businesses have revolve around their lack of expertise to calculate calorie content of the food they sell, the potential cost, and the time involved in implementing calorie menu labelling”


So it clear that 96% of consumers want this information to be displayed to help them make informed decisions.

I can totally appreciate why restaurants are having a hard time understanding why the Minister appears to have targeted them. But their reaction seems to be based on a misguided perception of the factors that affect and fuel the obesity epidemic in Ireland. Obesity is a very complex condition with several different factors playing a role – including nutrition, exercise, genetics, metabolism, medical conditions, social and cultural factors, social class, level of education, stress, occupation…. the list goes on! But for today let’s just look at a few aspects of nutrition….

Foods eaten outside the home are higher in fat and calories, primarily due to large portion sizes. I get tired of hearing people fob off the obesity crisis as being simply due to an over consumption of fast food & processed foods. This is just not true! Processed foods do not make people fat, excess calories do (and it doesn’t matter what kind of food the excess calories come from). Surprisingly, eating healthy food will not necessarily keep you at a healthy weight or indeed lead to weight loss – it depends how much you eat and exactly how many calories are in it! So it all comes back to portion size and calorie content.

Having been involved in national nutrition research for 3 years, I have first-hand knowledge of the habits of Irish adults in relation to eating out. There are distinct urban & rural differences. In rural areas, the tendency to eat out is relatively small, but in urban areas “eating out” can account for up to 100% of an adult’s food intake, especially for people who have long commutes to/from work.  For the purposes of the research the definition of ‘Eating out’ was also expanded to include foods prepared outside the home but eaten at home or on the run e.g. fast food/takeaways & dashboard dining (eating/drinking in your car/van/truck). The most common items in this category are hot drinks, soft drinks, snacks (chocolate crisps), hot food to go (eg breakfast roll, wedges, sausage rolls) & other deli items (takeaways sandwiches). A sandwich can contain anything from 250 calories up to 1000 calories – depending on the size and the filling. If calories were posted at the point of sale for items such as this, sales would not be affected but rather informed decisions could be made as most members of the public don’t have a clue how many calories are in anything!

If every person in Ireland was found to have all the genes associated with increasing their risk of obesity, then they could still only become obese if they have a plentiful supply of calories! There are no obese people in third world countries, and even though it is highly probable that a significant proportion of them would be genetically predisposed to obesity, it simply cannot  and will not occur in the absence of nutritional abundance (i.e. too many “calories”).

Most people I meet either professionally or socially seem to think that nutrition and healthy eating is everything on moderation, a low fat diet or indeed all common sense! However, what may be moderate to one person is another persons’ idea of gluttony! Despite supermarkets shelves laden with low-fat products & health foods, obesity continues to rise! And as far assuming that it’s only ‘all common sense’, believe that at your peril! Nutritional science is a very exact science but the main problem why there is such a palpable level of confusion about what constitutes a healthy diet is the fact the main sources of nutrition information amongst Irish adults is radio, television, print media, the internet, family, friends, work colleagues, neighbours,  – the list really is endless! Why don’t people seek the advice of qualified dietitians if they need nutrition advice? Thankfully the professional term dietitian is soon to be protected by law, but the vague title of nutritionist is less well defined and not protected, so anyone can call themselves a nutritionist without having ANY qualifications! So just beware, be very aware, and if you are thinking of taking advice from someone claiming to be a nutrition expert, check on to see if they have recognised qualifications.

All manufactured food sold in supermarkets must adhere to mandatory nutrition labelling which provides information on the energy (calories), protein, fat & carbohydrate content per 100g of the product. That’s only relevant or helpful if you know the exact weight (in grams!) of how much you have consumed! Research shows that ‘back of pack nutrition labelling’ is well read but not well understood! However recent research carried out by Safefood shows that ‘front of pack labelling’ (such as GDA nutrition information per serving) is much easier to understand, so that is why calories on menus need to be written beside the food item/price at the point of sale, not tucked away in a separate document or on a website.

37% of Irish adults read food labels for nutrition information, and 35% look for calorie content. Only 6½% of people actually know the difference between Energy and Calories. If you are in the other 93.5% you might be surprised to know that they mean the same thing! 7% of adults said they have no idea why they read food labels, but read them anyway!  32% of people claimed to know the difference between salt and sodium, but only 8.8% actually knew the difference!


So will calorie posting change behaviour?

Studies form the US show that when calories are posted on menus, 20% of people change their choice at the point of sale. Restauranteurs may be surprised to hear that not everyone chooses to order or eat less based on this information! Men are more likely to order MORE food because the calories are much less than they had thought! That’s where education programmes need to slot into this campaign, because without education, the calorie information alone will have a limited impact in the long term.

Dr. Donal O’Shea consultant physician who I have huge admiration for in trying to bring this initiative to Ireland said on RTE radio1 last week after this report was launched that “for every €1 spent in health promotion/prevention measures, it saves €14  later on in healthcare costs”. The HSE have pumped billions into other areas of primary care and they need to make significant financial grants available to restaurants who want to give this ‘a go’ during the voluntary period. If it will save billions later on, and they expect food businesses to jump on board, they must provide financial assistance. Otherwise what I see happening is the food businesses might ask their teenage children to work it out using a phone App or equivalent! In the few restaurants where I have seen calories displayed to date, I would be 100% sure that the figures were wrong, up to 100% error in some cases! Phone apps and other online nutrient calculation sites are generally based on US food data, which bears little or no resemblance to Ireland and UK food data. For example a steak from Irish beef fed on grass is worlds apart (nutritionally) from US food data on beef fed on a diet of grain! And that’s just one example!

If the calories on menus are not accurate, I would certainly envisage a situation where the FSAI will have no option but to legislate so that it can be policed and the public can make informed decision based on accurate information, rather than inaccurate information being provided for the sake of ticking a proverbial box.

Having worked a dietitian for 19 years, I would have to say there is a staggering level of confusion about nutrition and healthy eating.  People need help & education to make informed decisions. The RAI will be glad to hear that I do not think it is fair to make them carry the burden of cost, as many of them are already struggling on a daily basis to keep their doors open.  When the swine flu epidemic hit Ireland in the recent past, the HSE swung into action immediately with nationwide vaccinations programmes. I can only imagine what the cost was but no doubt is was a staggering chunk of money. It was a serious and urgent public health matter, so the Dept of Health/HSE paid for it. Obesity is also an urgent public health matter which will in the not too distant future cripple an already over stretched health system, so instead of putting the financial burden on the restauranteurs, the calorie posting should be phased in over a number of years, where technical experts (including food technologists, accredited laboratories & qualified dietitians) are made available to businesses to work with them on implementation, rather than working fiercely against each other as it currently stands.

Calorie labelling must be accurate. Displaying the amount of calories on food and beverages is a form of food labelling & is governed by food labelling legislation. The most important rule of food labelling is that the consumer must not be misled”

As present, it’s a no win situation, and absolutely futile; food businesses have to foot the bill, no one is policing it, accuracy is irrelevant & any old information will do as long as some kind of calorie information is displayed!  At best, it could be guessed, and no one would be any the wiser! As I say, absolutely futile, a total waste of time, energy & money.

Obesity in children is already at epidemic proportions. Over 300,000 Irish children are overweight or obese – 25% of boys and 35% of girls between the ages of 4 and 18 years. Adults are the ‘gatekeepers’ for children including their health, so parents need to be educated to recognise when their child needs intervention and treatment for childhood obesity. It is predicted by health experts that children may well die before their parents in this generation due to obesity related conditions, so something needs to be done, and it needs to be done quickly.

In conclusion, there are countless numbers of specific and expensive health promotion programmes & disease prevention strategies being run by the HSE / Dept of health – such as smoking cessation, cardiac rehab, mental health campaigns, cancer prevention initiatives ALL funded by the HSE / DoHC and rightly so. Obesity is currently costing Ireland €3000Million per year, and if this new calorie posting initiative is not funded then the short term and long term cost of obesity is likely to rise sharply. Food businesses need financial support to implement this initiative, and as per research stats, every euro that is put into a programme like this will SAVE €14 euro in the long term.

Written by Niamh O’Connor BSc Dip RD MINDI, Freelance Consultant Dietitian & Clinical Nutritionist.

Posted on 2nd October 2012.

Nutty Nutrition!

October 1, 2012

Nutty Notes of Interest!

• Some nuts grow on trees (such as walnuts, almonds and brazil nuts) but some also come from the ground such as peanuts. Peanuts come from the same family as beans and peas!

• Nuts are a fantastic source of dietary fibre, protein and many vitamins and minerals such as folic acid, vitamin E, magnesium and iron.

• A Low intake of selenium has been shown to increase the incidence of low mood states such as depression. Eating nuts such as brazil nuts which are high in selenium may help improve your mood

• Nuts contain a high fat content but these fats are healthy fats called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fats can help reduce cholesterol and therefore reduce the risk of heart disease.

• The Irish Heart Foundation recommends eating nuts as part of a healthy balanced diet.

• Walnuts contain Omega 3 fatty acids. These have been shown to help protect against heart disease and stroke and also have anti-inflammatory effects which help with joint stiffness and joint pain.

• Nuts have a low Glycaemic Index (GI) which means their energy is released slowly when eaten keeping us fuller for longer. This means we eat fewer calories throughout the day which is better for our waistlines!

• Choose unsalted nut varieties where possible, as salt increases blood pressure and therefore can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke

• Portion control is important too! As nuts contain a lot of fat, a handful (30g) provides all the benefits of nuts and only a moderate amount of fat, which is better for our hearts and our waistlines

• Peanuts and other nuts are common causes of food allergy psrticularly in adults. If you have been diagnosed with a nut allergy always check the ingredients and avoid if you are unsure.

Healthy Eating with Nuts

• Choose a handful (30g) of nuts instead of a bar of chocolate as a snack

• Add toasted nuts to a salad to increase your fibre intake

• Add nuts to homemade bread / scones

• Why not add nuts to a stir-fry instead of meat as a protein alternative

• Add nuts and dried fruit to jazz up a yogurt

• Make your own muesli using a variety of nuts, seeds, cereals and fruit.

• Add nuts to a healthy fruit-crumble dessert


Happy Halloween!


It’s not Rocket Science!

April 23, 2012

The diet experts

The intense media coverage of healthy eating and weight management issues every January is enough to bring up my Christmas dinner!

None of the radio programmes or print media pieces that I’ve listened to so far this have been written by or presented by qualified dietitians! I’ve had to listen to umpteen so called experts over the past few weeks and I’ve about had my fill at this stage. Even Operation Transformation on RTE has crossed the proverbial line by introducing their weight loss expert as a dietitian! It only took me a mere 5 years in TCD to achieve this, yet she can seemingly be bestowed this new professional title by an over enthusiastic script writer. A bit Irish for my liking I’m afraid. One swift message to RTE via Twitter led to a fast correction of that experts’ introduction from week 2 and beyond!

As with most of my colleagues on the Island of Ireland, we have given so much time (unpaid!) over the years to such interviews, and the seemingly astute interviewer always ends up summarising the topic of weight management and healthy eating as one of the following pearls of wisdom…..!

1. It’s not rocket science!
2. It’s all just common sense!
3. Everything in moderation!

Indeed I’d have to commend any journalist for figuring out that there is indeed no relationship between nutritional science and rocket science (or aeronautical engineering), except perhaps a ‘Mars’ bar being the exceptional link between the two topics!

Neither can nutritional science be pawned off as just ‘All Common sense’! If it were just all common sense we wouldn’t have such a significant decline in the health of the nation, particularly in relation to the obesity epidemic in adults (67%) and obesity in children (up to 33%), and an impending diabetes epidemic which will certainly cripple an already overstretched health service.

And as for the ‘Everything in Moderation’ approach! This has got to be most people’s favourite phrase, because there are absolutely no scientific parameters whatsoever to be achieved (eg 5 portions of fruit & vegetables every day) or to be avoided or to be limited (e.g. sodium & saturated fat) or indeed to be accurately measured (eg cholesterol), ever!

It’s like the Xbox Kinect 360 which my kids got from Santa – YOU are the Controller!

What may seem moderate to you in relation to one food or another may be extremely excessive as far as the scientific facts are concerned. So no, my dear friend, the ‘Everything in Moderation’ approach is not a good one to follow in order to achieve lasting health or wellness, or prevention of chronic diseases.

I have never known any other subject to cause so much discussion and confusion amongst adults, children, patients and health professionals, family friends and work colleagues than diet & nutrition. No one seems to agree on anything! Everyone has their own expertise to add to the argument, and everyone is confident that their opinion is based on fact! One obvious reason for this might come from the fact that in Ireland we obtain our nutritional information from a range of unusual and potentially unreliable sources – such as radio, print media (usually written by journalists), the internet (scary place to learn about your health), family (usually female members who are authoritarian in their approach to their knowledge of the subject matter and will not be argued with… see next paragraph on Married Milk!), friends, food writers, food retailers…

then add the magic ingredient – Advertising!

For every euro that the World Health Organisation spends on promoting healthy eating, €500 is spent by the world’s biggest fast food & beverage companies (sending out pretty much the opposite messages!), and the most worrying statistic is that 75% of such advertisements are aimed at our children.

Married Milk

Married Milk !!

I wonder how many gentlemen reading this blog are familiar with the product that I like to call “Married milk”?….. Let me explain…. Well it’s more of a rhetorical question really. How many men used to drink regular full-fat ‘normal’ whole milk until they moved in with a significant other (female for the purposes of this example) and all of a sudden skimmed milk takes up permanent residence in the fridge without their prior knowledge, consent or any form of discussion regarding their personal preference? Full fat milk, which seems to give rise to endless scare mongering by slimming clubs, is only 3.5% fat anyway, so is naturally a very low-fat food, and need not be banned from your life, married or not!

Misinterpreting food labels is another common denominator, particularly among females again (sorry ladies!). I generally recommend that people avoid reading labels unless they are 100% sure of how to interpret what they are reading, otherwise what’s the point? Food labelling is governed by strict legislation but we are still being bombarded by mis-leading and confusing health claims. E.g. If a biscuit is labelled 85% fat free, some of us automatically put it in the basket, but in actual fact it contains 15% fat which is NOT a low fat food at all. Similarly Olive oil is seen as low fat food, but it is 100% pure fat and we continue to use it liberally in cooking!

The argument about the different types of fat in such products a different discussion, as the main priority is to reduce the total amount of fat in our diet, which remains well above recommended levels. A food which is seen as an enemy (such as full fat milk) is only 3.5% fat yet the media & non-qualified ‘nutrition advisors’ often encourage us to avoid these foods when trying to lose weight. Research clearly shows that people on a weight reducing diet who consume 3 servings of dairy products per day will lose more weight per week than those slimmers who avoid dairy products, even if they all consume the same number of calories per week!

Even after a few simple examples, are you still confident that you are correctly interpreting food labels? Are you confident that it’s not rocket science, that it’s still all just common sense, or that everything in moderation is the key to healthy eating?

To know about nutrition ask a REAL dietitian!

To find one, check out

Rant over….for now !