Menu Labeling, Exercise Equivalents, and Our Eating.

With rising rates of weight-related health conditions, it’s becoming increasingly important to shift our focus towards a preventative approach regarding lifestyle interventions and combatting obesity. Treatment has its place of course, but if we can prevent these issues from emerging in the first place, that’s an ideal situation for us to be in.

This is why knowledge and nutrition education, especially, holds so much value no matter the individual and their starting point. Learning the ins and outs of how to diet properly, ways to approach our nutrition and implement it into our lives and developing tools in order sustain that progress is major key.

 

Some Background

One of the more recent changes made with the goal of promoting healthier behaviors and making nutrition education more widely available is something called point-of-purchase menu labeling. Essentially, this is where restaurants or food chains list calorie counts on their menu items, in efforts to educate consumers on the contents of their meal choices.


While polls have shown that most consumers would like nutrition information to be available to them while eating out, there are still quite a few mixed feelings and results around calorie counts on menus and the impact they really make on our food choices.

 

Exercise Equivalents

In addition to calorie counts, exercise equivalents are also a novel idea to possibly include within point-of-purchase labeling. Exercise equivalents can be described as the amount of time doing a specific exercise or activity in order to burn off the calories in certain foods.

(I.e. walking to the fridge burns approximately 2 calories… don’t take my word for it though).

 

I’ll say right now that I personally don’t agree with the use of exercise equivalents in most contexts, really. It’s great information to know, but I don’t think they provide the right message in most instances. They often encourage the idea of looking at food from a lens of what you need to do to “work it off.” As we know, context matters! When it comes to educating clients and implementing positive habits, though, I think education around nutrition and physical activity can be spread in much better ways.

Not only that, but there are much more positive habits that we can establish when it comes to eating out, eating off plan, and moving forward from those meals while continuing our progress.

Nonetheless, this present study sought out to determine if using exercise equivalents in conjunction with caloric information on menus was able to make an impact on the subsequent meal choices of 62 overweight and obese females.

 

Informed Eating

This study design held two meal sessions (Lunch 1 and Lunch 2) in a standard hamburger and fries fast food chain. The sessions were 1 week apart from each other – the first lunch served as a control and the second served as the experimental intervention. Once at Lunch 2, each participant received restaurant menus with the only difference being the information provided on them (which were randomly assigned): no information on calories or exercise equivalents, calories only, or calories and exercise equivalents. Exercise equivalents and calorie contents were listed in column headers as “minutes to burn off X food from walking”, “calorie content.”

Three factor eating questionnaires were also implemented in the study design in order to determine restraint levels of the women. This can also be an influential marker in eating behavior worth taking note of. (Read more on that here!)

 

Application

While this study did not reach statistical significance, results found that both the calories only and calorie + exercise equivalent participants wound up ordering 16% and 14% fewer calories from Lunch 1 to Lunch 2, respectively. The no information group saw a difference of only 2% fewer calories.

Regardless if the participants were restrained or unrestrained eaters, both types saw a meaningful decrease in calories ordered by Lunch 2. The largest decrease in calories was seen in restrained eaters in the calories-only group (a decrease of 24.7%).

While these results are not labeled as significant findings, these differences in eating behavior (in only a week’s time) are meaningful! Oftentimes when clients start tracking their food and seeing those numbers out in front of them, it gives them a whole new perspective on the foods they’re eating and allows us to make informed choices on how we want to structure our day.

Being aware of what and how much we’re consuming, learning about portion sizes, and being cognizant of how these meals will fit into our day as a whole are all important steps in finding a better balance between eating the foods we enjoy while keeping overarching lifestyle goals in mind. No food is inherently “good” or “bad” here either; just because one item may be higher calorie than another doesn’t make it less healthy than another. This is all context dependent on the client’s goals, their body composition, dieting history, current intake, and so much more. 

 

References:

Platkin, C., Ming-Chin, Y., Hirsch, K., et al. The effect of menu labeling with calories and exercise equivalents on food selection and consumption. BMC Obesity. 2014, 1:21.