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Today’s blue-plate special: more informed dining options

On the first day of 2019, the province of Ontario will celebrate the second anniversary of the implementation of the Health Menu Choices Act.

On the first day of 2019, the province of Ontario will celebrate the second anniversary of the implementation of the Health Menu Choices Act. The legislation, designed and enacted by the provincial Liberal government, compels all food-service chains that have at least 20 locations in the province to post the number of calories in all food and drink items they sell.

At the time, Ontario’s nutritional guidelines for restaurants, fast-food outlets and coffee shops were criticized by some, who saw the display of caloric information on menus as another example of a “nanny state.”

Centre-right politicians and commentators in the province were astounded at the thought of a provincial government meddling in the meal choices of residents.

Current Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who supplanted Liberal Kathleen Wynne after this year’s provincial election, is currently preoccupied with more pressing concerns, such as the future of the auto industry and his opposition to a federal carbon tax. Within this backdrop, the now-governing Progressive Conservative Party has not signalled any intention to do away with the Health Menu Choices Act.

Other parts of Canada have inadvertently benefited from the fact that many billboards and menus are designed for the country’s most populous province. Other jurisdictions do not have legislation as stringent as Ontario’s when it comes to informing the public about calories. Still, western provinces have ended up relying on the same displays that Ontarians have, complete with information that was nowhere to be found two years ago.

In British Columbia, the Informed Dining program was designed to provide restaurant guests with nutrition information on their menus, with an emphasis on calories and sodium. The program launched in 2012 – under the previous BC Liberal administration – and currently boasts more than 1,900 different food-service outlets. While impressive, the list does not include every restaurant. British Columbia’s program, unlike Ontario’s, is voluntary.

When Research Co. asked British Columbians if it is time for the province to follow Ontario’s lead and make calorie displays in restaurants mandatory, four in five residents (81%) supported the idea. There is little indication that this change, if implemented, will be regarded as a “nanny state” move: overwhelming majorities of British Columbians of all genders, ages, regions and political leanings believe this is the right course of action.

British Columbia has traditionally been one of the healthiest provinces in Canada. In its latest update related to countrywide physical activity, Statistics Canada reported that 64.9% of all residents of British Columbia over the age of 12 had exercised for at least 150 minutes every week. This is a significant positive deviation from the Canadian average of 57.4%.

In the survey, we also found out that two in five British Columbians (41%) currently use an activity tracker. These devices can monitor specific fitness-related metrics, including distance walked, amount of exercise and/or calorie consumption. Activity trackers are decidedly more popular in Metro Vancouver (47%), among those aged 18 to 34 (also 47%) and among women (45%).

With a sizable proportion of British Columbians currently relying on activity trackers, it makes sense to find a way to bring the Informed Dining program to as many restaurants as possible. Four in five residents have no problem seeing this information everywhere, especially if their occupation makes them more prone to eat out.

Yes, it can be quite daunting to figure out that your favourite meal or drink will set you back hundreds – or even thousands – of calories. But there are many British Columbians who are already making the most of technology to try to lead healthier lifestyles. Having more information at their disposal can only help. •

Mario Canseco is the president of Research Co.