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Should restaurants tell us how much exercise is needed to burn off our meals?

It’s no secret that most of us need to eat less junk food. In a survey conducted of 35,000 Canadians in 2004, 25% of them reported having eaten fast food in the last 24 hours. A study in 2005 published by the Canadian Journal of Public Health, showed that areas with numerous fast food chains had a higher chance of “extremely high levels of hospitalization for coronary problems”. Unfortunately, the stats are likely to have gotten worse in the last 8 years, not better.

It’s an epidemic, but what can we do about it? In America, laws are being drawn up to make it mandatory to display calorie information for every menu item in restaurant chains with 20 or more locations. These proposed rules are weak and confusing – places like movie theatres don’t need to abide by the rules and even more imprecise is that calorie ranges are still allowed (example a burrito has “400-900 calories”). This all may sound like a step in the right direction, but recently a study has shown that calorie labelling doesn’t work.

The study by Meena Shah, of Texas Christian University, was presented at a conference in Boston last month and its findings were interesting. The study showed that when a group of test subjects were given menus with or without calorie information on it, it made no difference to their food choices. One thing that did make a difference – telling consumers how much exercise would be required to burn off the meal they were ordering.

The participants in the study were asked to order from one of three menus, one had food items on it, one had calories next to the food items and one had the number of minutes of brisk walking it would take to burn the food off. The third group ordered and ate significantly less.

To me, the advantages of labelling food in this way are clear. Firstly, it’s something that everyone can relate to – not everyone understands what a calorie is and how it relates to your daily intake. It tells the customer clearly that this cheeseburger will require more exercise than that smaller cheeseburger. Secondly, it works. It encourages “downsizing” rather than the “supersizing” and also makes the subconscious connection between food and exercising.

There are a few disadvantages. The information can only ever be a guide, because everyone metabolizes at different rates. It will take one person longer to burn off that cheeseburger than someone else. It is also slightly misleading in that it implies we need to burn off every calorie we consume, where calories actually have a role to play in keeping our bodies working. It’s the excess contained within the cheeseburger that needs burning off, rather than every single calorie of it.

All in all, I think it’s a great idea. Anything that makes the nation healthier is a worth a try and it seems to be more effective than your standard nutritional information. If it helps people reconsider their diet and save them from obesity related diseases, then it’s a job well done!


Until next time,

Peace, love and vitamin C!



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