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Why You're Fat

We Should Measure Our Food In Exercise, Not In Calories

People have no idea what calorie counts on menus mean for their health, but if you tell them a dish will take two hours of exercise to work off, they start thinking differently.

Fast food establishments in New York City and California are required to post how many calories are in the milkshake and fries you’re about to devour. But does that actually do anything to dissuade people from eating high-calorie meals?

Calories, after all, are just a meaningless number for many people (including this author) who don’t really think of their overall eating habits or exercise practices in terms of the flow of calories in and out of their bodies. Increasingly, researchers are showing there’s a better way than just calorie postings to encourage eaters to make healthier decisions: by informing consumers how much exercise it would take to burn a meal off.

A study by researchers at UNC’s medical school, published in the journal Appetite, showed the kind of choices people make when randomly presented with different types of menus with differing levels of nutritional information: one with no nutritional info, one with calorie info, one with calories plus the minutes of walking required to burn the calories, and a fourth with calories plus the distance required to burn off the calories.

"People who viewed the menu without nutritional information ordered a meal totaling 1,020 calories, on average, significantly more than the average 826 calories ordered by those who viewed menus that included information about walking-distance," writes Scientific American. People who saw the menu with walking-distance info also ordered less than people who just saw calorie info.

Such a finding goes along with what researchers at Johns Hopkins have found. Signs posted on beverage cases in a convenience store about how much exercise it would take to burn off a bottle of soda (about 50 minutes of running) were much better at dissuading adolescents from buying sugary drinks than signs with just the calorie content. The researchers at UNC say they’re interested in bringing their study into the real-world as well—starting with the university cafeteria.

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