Menus at chain restaurants and school cafeterias should be required to list how many calories are found in the foods, a group of doctors in Ontario said Tuesday.

"We know that they do have that information available; they have it on their websites, they have it on brochures," said Dr. Ken Arnold, president of the Ontario Medical Association.

"We're simply asking that they would make that more readily available to consumers in the store, at the time of purchase."

The group called for:

  • Restaurant leaders to label menus quickly and voluntarily.
  • The provincial government to enact legislation to require calories to be listed next to the price of items on menus and menu boards at large chain restaurants and school cafeterias across Ontario.
  • An education campaign to inform people about the impact of calorie intake on weight gain and obesity.

The goal is to guide consumers to choose lower calorie items or eat high calorie meals less often, particularly when feeding children.

"Knowing that the fancy coffee you're ordering for a snack in the morning has more calories than many fast-food burgers would be useful," said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director at the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, 

"It will not necessarily mean that people will not consume the high-calorie items, but they'll at least know what they're getting themselves into."

A tuna melt for example may contain double to triple the number of calories that some hamburgers contain, he said.

Mandating calorie counts

A number of restaurants, including McDonald's and Tim Hortons, did not return calls to CBC News.

The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association issued a statement saying it would be hard to offer standardized nutritional information, since many outlets use local produce and often substitute ingredients.

At a food court in Toronto, Rob Vennie took a break from a plate of Chinese food to give the proposal his thumb's up.

"It's a right to know," said Vennie. "Put it right up on the board and then you'll know."

Arnold said he is not aware of other provinces or territories calling for the posting of calories for fast-food items by restaurant chains in schools, but a Canadawide system would be ideal.

In New York City, restaurant chains with more than 15 locations nationally are required by law to list calories on menus and menu boards, he said. A similar law has been passed in California and a bill before the U.S. Congress would make such calorie content mandatory across the country.

Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said the government is working with Refreshments Canada and dietitians to look at nutritional guidelines for school cafeterias.

According to a related OMA report, Treatment of Childhood Overweight and Obesity, a quarter of children are obese, and almost half are couch potatoes.

Evidence links excess weight in childhood to risk of Type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, certain types of sleep apnea and chronic kidney disease later in life.

More than 75 per cent of obese children become obese adults, and the excess weight costs Ontario $2.2 billion to $2.5 billion per year, the report's authors estimated.

With files from Canadian Press