New legislation in Ontario that would require fast-food chains to post calorie counts for each item on their menu boards moved forward today.

Health Minister Deb Matthews advanced the bill in the legislature Monday after completing a period of consultation with health professionals and businesses.

While some big fast-food chains have wall posters or brochures that outline nutritional information, the new law would require them to post calorie counts prominently on menu boards or menus or alongside the food when it is served.

With obesity a growing health problem in North America, Ontario is hoping that having calorie counts prominently displayed will discourage poor choices by consumers.

The government promised last October to introduce legislation that would make menu labelling mandatory. The bill to amend the Health Protection and Promotion Act gets second reading today.

"We are focusing on calories because that's the single best proxy up for the issue we are trying to tackle - childhood obesity," Matthews said in a news conference today.

While some health professionals wanted labelling that spelled out amounts of sodium, trans fat and sugar, Matthews said she did not want to overload consumers.

High sodium to be flagged

"[I] kind of worry about information overload that results in it being ignored, so let's take the first step," she said.

Sodium was a big concern among health groups consulted by the province, as Canadians are believed to be over-consuming salt at risk to their heart health. Bill 59 requires high or very high sodium items to be flagged  somewhere on the premises, though not necessarily on the menu board.

Only restaurants that have more than 20 Ontario locations and do more than $5 million of business annually will be affected by the legislation.

The calorie information must be prominently displayed in type as large as the price, with information for all varieties, flavours and sizes of each item.

Restaurant owners will also be required to have available brochures with more detailed nutritional information on each item as well as flagging each high or very high sodium item.

Just part of battle against obesity

Premier Kathleen Wynne said the bill is just one piece of the battle against health problems from obesity and sodium intake. Consumers will make more healthy choices if they have more information about the food they order, she said.

But there also is a need for Ontario residents to become more active and be more aware of how food choices affect their health, she said.

The province said it spent $4.5 billion caring for people struggling with obesity in 2012, with conditions such as diabetes eating into health care dollars.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Canadian health is lagging with higher prevalence of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes among those aged 20 to 79 (8.7 in Canada vs. 6.9 OECD average in 2011) and about 25 per cent of the Canadian population obese, compared to the OECD average of 17 per cent.

With files from The Canadian Press