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How far would you walk for a cheeseburger? A new approach to counting calories

A new study shows people may eat less and make healthier choices if they know how much exercise they'll have to do to burn off the calories consumed.
A new study shows people may eat less and make healthier choices if they know how much exercise they'll have to do to burn off the calories consumed.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By now, you're probably used to seeing those pesky calorie counts next to menu items: 510 calories in a Crispy Chicken Sandwich; 750 calories (yikes!) in a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese.

But these numbers—no matter how big—are often hard to translate into our everyday lives. And they may not be all that effective in encouraging healthier meal choices.

That's why some health experts are experimenting with a different type of food labeling.

Time Magazine reports researchers from Texas Christian University (TCU) conducted an experiment: They replaced calorie labeling on menus with the number of minutes of brisk walking you'd have to do in order to burn off what you just ate.

In the study, 300 men and women between the ages of 18 and 30 ordered from one of three menus. The choices on each were the same: hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, salads, fries and other typical fast food fare.

But here's where the menus varied: one menu had no calorie information; another had calorie counts next to each food item; and a third listed the minutes of walking you'd need to do to burn off the calories consumed with each food item.  

Researchers found that participants who ordered off the menu with the walking information ate food with fewer calories than those who ordered off the other two menus. 

NPR reports that according to project researchers, it would take a woman two hours of walking to burn off a double cheeseburger. 

"Consumers should become more aware of how much exercise it takes to burn the calories from energy-dense foods," said TCU professor of nutrition Meena Shah in an NPR interview. "Once people learn that it takes an hour or two to burn calories from one food item, they might think twice."

Two years ago, California's calorie count law went into effect, requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on menu boards. The hope was that with more information, customers would make better food choices. There's a lot of debate among health experts about whether that's happening.

The New York Times reported in 2011 that New York University (NYU) researchers found that while many people noticed the calorie denotations on the men at their local chain restaurant, nearly 90 percent of them said it didn't influence what they ordered. 

“There are a lot of things that go into you choosing the large french fries aside from just the knowledge part of it,” NYU assistant professor Dr. Brian Elbel told the Times. “These foods taste really good. Just putting the calorie information up there, I think we know now, is not going to be enough.”