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New Way to Label Menus: That Sandwich Equals an Hour of Walking

New Way to Label Menus: That Sandwich Equals an Hour of Walking

Eat a cheeseburger and you’ll need to walk briskly for two hours to burn the calories: researchers from Texas Christian University found that, when people were told how much physical activity they’d have to undertake to burn off something they’d eaten, they ended up consuming less and making healthier food choices.

That’s what Dr. Meena Shah and Ashlei James reported in a study they presented at the annual meeting of Experimental Biology. They’re planning to continue their research which, if found valid, could have ramifications not only on calls for menus to list calorie counts but on food labels.

More and more restaurants have added calorie counts to their menus, in an effort to help people make healthier choices, but the accuracy of the counts remains in question and it’s been more than frequently noted that including all those extra numbers does not affect people’s decisions about what to eat.

You can even say that, frankly, people don’t give a damn about how many units of energy they consume from a plate of lasagna, a latte or a leafy green salad.

However, presenting the same information in terms of what people actually would have to do to burn off rather than in the more abstract format of a numbers can lead people to consume about 100 fewer calories.

In Shah’s and James’s study, 300 participants (aged 18-30 years old and not aware of the purpose of the study) were shown one of three menus. While all listed the same food and drink choices (burgers, sandwiches, salad, chips, soft drinks, water), one group had a menu without any calorie information. Another had a menu that showed calorie counts while a third had a menu that showed both calories and the amount of exercise needed to burn them off. The group shown the third type of menu ate far less food than the other groups.

One reason this was the case might simply be that a menu showing what you have to do to work off eating various foods taps into how people actually think about what they’re eating. Saying that an apple or a bagel is equivalent to X amount of calories and that’ss all just a bunch of numbers. But saying “you’ll have to walk a mile at a fast pace or put in two hours on the treadmill to take that off” gives people a clear sense of how what they consume affects them.

As has been increasingly pointed out, food labels offer puzzling, sometimes contradictory and even downright untruthful information. Words like “natural” and “healthy” have become all but devoid of meaning when used on food labels. What if calorie counts on menus and food labels were accompanied, or even replaced, with “physical activity equivalents” that spell out “eat this — then do this”?


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Photo via King Chung Huang

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11:55PM PDT on Jun 17, 2013

I think I would pay more attention to a label if it told me what I would have to do to work it off vs. just calories!

6:09AM PDT on May 23, 2013

Walk a mile or two for a sandwich?

1:20AM PDT on May 22, 2013

Thanks for sharing!

9:26AM PDT on May 13, 2013

i think it would definitely get people thinking, more than just numbers. people are generally uninformed and don't make the effort to know what they're eating. this might make them stop and actually think...

11:11PM PDT on May 7, 2013


7:36PM PDT on May 5, 2013

Too much labeling in this case not enough thinking.

1:18PM PDT on May 5, 2013

Most people don't think about how much they have to work out to work off fast food : )

11:09AM PDT on May 5, 2013

Great idea

10:43AM PDT on May 4, 2013

C'est surtout des campagnes auprès des gros industriels de l'agro alimentaire de votre Pays qu'il faut s'attaquer en priorité, à savoir leur demander de mettre moins de graisse, moins de sucre, moins de sel dans leur préparation, aux consommateurs de commencer à s'intéresser à la question alimentaire, de lire les étiquettes lors de leurs achats, de boycotter tous les produits où la graisse est en quantité importante, etc...sans oublier un changement de comportement, dans sa façon de s'alimenter, c'est sur, ces avertissements n'auront pas d'impact sur certaines personnes, chacun étant libre de se goinfrer en se faisant péter l'estomac, mais par la suite qui en paye le prix fort, vous même. Je suis désolée mais je n'approuve pas certains commentaires, on ne demande pas aux gens d'avoir la ligne haricot vert, mais de faire un choix, pour son propre bien être. Il est évident que quelqu'un qui est en surpoids, est plus handicapé qu'une personne qui se surveille. A chacun de faire son choix de vie.

9:01AM PDT on May 4, 2013

Give it a try, but do you honestly think the targeted people are going to pay any attention? They simply do not care. Slap them on the head and it's just going to bounce off.

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