How Much Exercise Will It Take to Work Off a Burger? Menus May Soon Tell You

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More restaurants display calorie counts on their menus, but what if they also informed you what it would take to burn off those calories?

It’s one thing to know how many calories are packed into a meal you’re about to eat, and quite another to fully appreciate what your body does with them. That’s been clear since cities like New York mandated calorie counts on fast food and restaurant menus so consumers would have a better idea of what they were eating. Despite the added information, studies haven’t shown that the counts led people to eat less. In fact, some surveys found they prompted people to order more food. So caloric information, it seems, doesn’t  have much impact on eating behavior.

Better strategies are clearly needed, so researchers Dr. Meena Shah and Ashlei James from Texas Christian University tried another approach — replacing the calorie counts with the number of minutes of brisk walking a person would need to complete to burn off what they just ate.

(MORE: Do Calorie Counts on Menus Curb Eating? Not So Much)

The researchers chose brisk walking since it’s a physical activity most people can do, and can easily fit into their day, as opposed to running or jogging. “We did the study specifically in younger adults. The reason why we chose young adults is because they exercise more than older adults and we felt that they would relate to it more than older adults,” says Shah.

The scientists recruited 300 men and women ages 18 to 30 and randomly assigned them to order lunch from one of three menus: one that was calorie-free, one that included calorie counts and another labeled with the minutes of walking needed to burn the calories in the food. All the menus had the same food offerings, including burgers, chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders, salad, fries, desserts, soda and water.

The participants who were provided the walking information ordered and consumed fewer calories compared to those who ordered off the menu without calorie labels. However, as with some previous studies, there was no difference in the calories consumed between those who ordered off the menu with calorie count labels and those who were not provided with calorie information.

(MORE: Are Calorie Counts on Menus Accurate? Not So Much)

The findings suggest that putting caloric information in context may help consumers to better appreciate how much they are eating. And while the study focused on participants under age 30, the researchers say the results could have implications for changing eating habits for all adults. “It could take anywhere from one to two hours of moderate exercise such as brisk walking to burn the calories in some of the energy-dense foods. This may then help them make more appropriate food choices,” says Shah. The more information people have, he says, the more informed their food choices might be; there’s nothing like the prospect of more exercise to help fight the urge to eat.

The research was presented at the Experimental Biology 2013 meeting in Boston.