The best and most fascinating studies for me are the simple ones. I don’t want to know the genome of the brain, someone does, but not me. I want to know why I eat and why I exercise. More practical and applicable to my daily life than know the DNA of my left parietal lobe. If indeed I have one of those.
Last week in Boston the annual Experimental Biology Conference took place. This annual event gathers leaders from a diverse set of fields, including nutrition, to discuss the cutting edges of their disciplines. I was thrilled that the study entitled, “Menu labels displaying amount of exercise needed to burn calories show benefits” was one that the New York Times chose to highlight earlier this week. Out of all the amazing research presented, why we eat the way we do and ways to stop it grabbed the headlines. Progress.
A small provision of the Affordable Health Care Act states that restaurant chains of more than 20 outlets must display the calorie content of their foods. This is welcome news, however, how many of us know what that number means or even care? Calories in a McDonalds Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese? 750 big ones. “Wow, that seems to be quite a few,” we think immediately before taking off a bite. The issue with calorie counts and nutritional content is that the information is not salient to us, it is not meaningful. Most know that high calories may want to be avoided, but even that is relative. Enter the present study.
Researchers at Texas Christian University tracked what people ordered and what they actually consumed as a result of ordering from three different menu options. The food items listed on the menus were identical with one exception: one menu simply listed the food, another listed calories next to the food, and the third listed how long one would have to briskly walk if they ordered and consumed each food. Now we’re talking. Threaten people with exercise and watch them change their behavior.
When ordering from menus that listed how much brisk walking would be needed to burn off the consumed calories individuals ordered and ate significantly less calories when compared to the other two conditions. There was no difference in calories ordered or consumed when comparing menus with and without calorie counts.
This isn’t to say that menus with calories listed are meaningless. To some this information is useful, to others it is simply a moment for pause. However, exercise is salient, people can relate to walking. When you see a sirloin steak you want and next to it reads “You will have to walk briskly for 60 minutes” in order to burn those consumed calories behavior seems to change.
Take home message: if we want to get people to change their behavior around food and exercise, the information we share with them must be relevant. This information cannot be abstract, like calorie counts. That Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese? Go walk for two hours and get back to me.
How long will did I have to walk after I consumed last weekend’s birthday desserts? Way too long. And that means something to me.