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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