Opinion: Our obsession with calories has gone too far
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'Which has more calories – a glass of wine or a pint of beer?' It's not an easy question to answer, but it's one which is often asked of me, as I serve behind the bar.
Much depends on certain variables – the size of the glass, the style of beer – but the frequency with which this question pops up never fails to take me by surprise.
It's asked by both male and female drinkers, young and old. They always look faintly annoyed when I can't offer a definitive answer.
But surely the real question here is: should it matter?
Should we be marking our pump clips with nutritional information? The calorific content of soft drinks is already splashed all over the packaging. Why not do the same for beer? After all, we're helping drinkers to make a well-informed choice. Isn't that what responsible drinking is all about?
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Well, actually, no. There's more to this calorie-counting business than meets the eye.
A study by the British Beer & Pub Association found that in many cases, a glass of beer is lower in calories than an equivalent measure of milk and some fruit juice.
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Does this mean that we should be pouring a nice golden ale over our cornflakes in the morning? Of course not. Yes, I'm being flippant. But it does demonstrate that calorie content can be misleading.
The main issue here is what we're taught to believe.
The mantra that calories are bad has been drilled into us from the moment we're old enough to pronounce the word 'diet' – and that word itself is both misleading and misused.
Empty of calories quite often means empty of any nutritional value, and packed full of rubbish to compensate. As four-letter words go, I believe it to be the most offensive yet. But when it's printed on a can, then somehow, it's gospel.
The curse of the calorific content has crept up on us. No longer relegated to a tiny table on the back of a packet, it's now on full display on the front of the product.
Further to this, certain fast food and coffee outlets have taken to displaying it next to their prices on menus and advertising. Is this responsible marketing or not? Think of what isn't shown: fat content, sugar content, nutritional value (if any). Surely we should be looking at the whole picture and not just one segment?
I have to admit that I try my hardest to ignore those little numbers next to my drink of choice. I don't often treat myself to a nice coffee or muffin or ice cream, but when I do, I want to choose that product because I want to enjoy it.
I don't want to be made to feel guilty for spending my money on something that I really quite fancy. I don't want to feel that I should be buying a drink that I don't like as much, simply because it's got fewer calories – and I certainly don't want to be led towards buying something that's got no nutritional value at all, simply because the calorific count is smaller. Where's the sense in that?
Recently, there's been a move to suggest that restaurants, too, should display the calorific content of meals next to the menu options.
I think if this happens, I'll simply stop eating out.
While I respect the right of all to have the tools to make an informed decision, this really is a step too far. By all means, have a separate menu for those who are making a conscious decision to lose weight, but keep it behind the bar, and available on request.
More importantly, make sure it contains all the information needed to make a sensible choice. But for those of us who are happy to eat what we want, and not what we feel we should have, let us enjoy our food without being made to feel guilty.
This feeling of guilt is the crux of many bad food and drink habits, and underlies many of our choices. How many times have you heard, at a counter, 'I shouldn't', or 'I mustn't', or, even worse, 'I fancy something naughty'. Yes, it's naughty. No, it doesn't matter. Eat your muffin, drink your latte and then walk home instead of getting the bus. As with everything, there has to be a balance.
Beneath it all, for me, is a deep-rooted resentment at being told what to eat and drink. I find it patronising and insulting. For too long, the focus has been on denial.
Surely it's more empowering to allow people to eat and drink what they want, and push instead the benefits of exercise and sport?
Instead of encouraging young girls to cut back on their food intake, we should be encouraging them to participate in activities that burn off the calories in those lattes.
The focus should be on the positive and not the negative. It's time to stop telling us what we can't do and start telling us what we can. You can have your cake – and you can eat it, too.