Food for Thought

Making a real meal deal of it
If you asked your Mum or Dad or grandparents what’s a meal or what’s for dinner, they’d probably say something like meat and three veg one of which would be potato – and here in Australia the other two might be carrots and peas/beans/broccoli. Life’s not like that any more. ‘Meal’ and ‘dinner’ are pretty meaningless terms and seem to cover anything from a choosing a variety of tapas-style sharing plates to virtually veg-free zones.

For example, a meal in a Sydney steakhouse might be a 650g Angus rib on bone served with red wine jus and your choice of chips, baked potato or mash. Salads or seasonal greens are extra. For family fare, there’s the ‘KFC Mega Meal’ which is (in Australia): ‘12 pieces of Original Chicken Recipe, 1 Maxi Popcorn Chicken or 12 Kentucky Nuggets, 2 Large Chips, 1 Large Potato & Gravy, 1 Large Coleslaw and a 1 Large Drink.’

KFC Mega Meal

What we are eating is clearly part of the cause for our expanding waistlines. Looking for a culprit, the food police and pollies found one: fast food chains. And a solution (closing them down not being an option): nutritional labelling so we can make more informed choices. Since February this year all major fast food chains in NSW Australia must display the kilojoule (calorie) counts of their food with the same prominence as the price to help us make better choices. The question is: will we?

Nicole Senior took a look at nutritional labelling in fast food joints in the US last year and reported in GI News that: ‘New York City has a nutritional labelling program which came into full swing in 2009. While it’s too early to say it’s been a flop, initial results have been disappointing. A study by New York University compared fast food purchases in New York City (with calorie counts on menus) and neighbouring Newark (without) and found there was no difference between calorie content of what customers bought in stores with calorie counts compared to those without calorie counts. This, despite the fact that 28% of NY customers said calorie counts had influenced them to order better: a classic case of saying one thing and doing another.’

Wiser heads than ours are probably pondering the whys and wherefores of consumer behaviour. But could it be that we eat food not nutrients. And that throwing numbers at us with nutritional labelling doesn’t give our brains the sort of information they are wired to use to help us make better choices picking a meal in a restaurant, food hall or fast food chain. After all, we didn't evolve eating by numbers. No-one was counting calories when the day's kill was brought back to the cave.

So here’s a thought. Why not go back to basics and make it a rule that every time a food company, restaurant, fast food chain, recipe writer, food stylist etc. tells us that what they are offering is a ‘meal’ or a ‘dinner,’ that’s what it’s gotta be. And here’s where we can make use of those rather long-winded dietary guidelines. The 2010 American ones put it (almost) perfectly recommending Americans fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables at every meal. We’d just tweak that and say ‘non-starchy vegetables’. They go in the low GI carb corner.

A balanced meal