Translating calories to miles prompts significant portion reductions

Food labels that translate the number of calories in a meal into the amount of miles a person would have to walk to burn off those calories may be the most effective for reducing calorie intake, show study findings.

As reported in Appetite, Sunaina Dowray (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA) and colleagues recruited 802 participants (mean age 43-45 years; 88% female) and asked them to select food from sample fast-food menus as part of a web-based survey to assess the impact of physical activity information on food labels on food selection by consumers.

The researchers compared results from people provided with labels listing mileage needed to burn the calories in the meal, with those from participants given labels containing either no nutritional information, calorie information alone, or calorie content plus number of minutes of walking required to burn the calories.

They found that people in the group given no nutritional information "ordered" food with an average content of 1020 calories and those given calorie information alone ordered a mean content of 927 calories.

Physical activity information did seem to have an additional positive effect over calorie information alone; those in the group given calorie information plus number of minutes walking needed to burn those calories ordered food with an average calorie content of 916 calories and participants given calorie content plus miles walking needed to burn the calories ordered food containing 826 calories on average.

The difference in total calories ordered when comparing participants given no nutritional information with those given calorie information plus the number of miles needed to burn them off was statistically significant, although the difference between the former group and the group given the calorie content plus number of minutes of walking was just below statistical significance.

"Contextualizing effort in terms of distance may influence people's decisions more than effort in terms of time," suggest Dowray and team, although they concede that more research is needed to explain the differences in participant selection between the two menus containing physical activity information.

Promisingly, 82% of the participants said that they preferred the menus that displayed physical activity information, suggesting that such labels may have public support if rolled out on a larger scale.

However, the researchers say: "Whether these labels are effective in real-life scenarios remains to be tested."

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