When menus present them with how many minutes of brisk walking it takes to burn off the calories contained in different food options, people tend to choose lower calorie meals. These were the findings of a new study presented at the Experimental Biology 2013 meeting in Boston on Tuesday.
Lead researcher Meena Shah, of Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, says in a press statement:
“This is the first study to look at the effects of displaying minutes of brisk walking needed to burn food calories on the calories ordered and consumed.”
Shah and colleagues were looking for a new angle for getting people to consume fewer calories in chain restaurants, because recent studies suggest the introduction of of calorie values on menus, as required by new laws, does not seem to be having the desired effect. The idea behind the new legislation is to encourage consumers to make healthier, informed food choices by showing them the energy values of meals.
Research from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently revealed that on average, adults in the US get more than 11% of their daily calories from eating fast food.
As presenting people with calorie values of food choices does not seem to be working, nutritionists have been looking out for new approaches. One that is currently being explored, as in this study, comes from the plausible idea that if you tell people how long they would need to exercise for to burn off the calories in a given food option, they can visualize that more easily than trying to imagine what they would have to do to burn off a given number of calories.
“We need a more effective strategy to encourage people to order and consume fewer calories from restaurant menus,” explains Shah.
“Brisk walking is something nearly everyone can relate to, which is why we displayed on the menu the minutes of brisk walking needed to burn food calories,” says co-author Ashlei James, also of TCU.
For their study, the researchers recruited 300 men and women aged between 18 and 30, invited them to eat in restaurants, and randomly assigned them to be given one of three menus for making their meal choices.
All three menus looked identical and had the same options, except one showed the number of minutes of brisk walking that would be required to burn off the calories in each option, another showed the number of calories in each option, and the third menu showed neither calorie numbers nor minutes of walking.
None of the participants were told the purpose of the study.
“All menus contained the same food and beverage options, which included burgers, chicken sandwiches/tenders, salad, fries, desserts, soda, and water,” says James.
The researchers found that participants whose menus showed no calorie or minutes of walking information ordered and consumed more calories than those whose menus showed the number of minutes of brisk walking needed to burn off the calories.
But it is interesting that this was also true of the participants whose menus showed calorie counts: those participants also ordered and consumed fewer calories compared to the group whose menus gave no information.
Shah says the findings suggest there “are benefits to displaying exercise minutes to a group of young men and women”.
However, she cautioned that the participants were all under the age of 30, so it would be wrong to assume these findings are representative of all people who frequent chain restaurants.
The team now intends to do the same study with an older and more diverse group.
Shah says many of the participants were astonished to see how much exercise they would have to do to burn off some the menu options.
“For example, a female would have to walk briskly for approximately 2 hours to burn the calories in a quarter-pound double cheeseburger,” she says.
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD