If you knew that a 12-ounce chocolate chip frappe (530 calories) would cost you up to two hours of brisk walking, would you still order it?
New research shows that when we have "exercise cost" information readily available, we are less likely to make unhealthful food choices.
The research, by Meena Shah at Texas Christian University, shows that when restaurants give not only the calorie content but also exercise-cost information, customers tend to make better choices.
"It's helpful because it puts calories in context," says Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness. "I am a big believer in calorie labeling at restaurants, and this is even better."
Without that exercise-cost context, people tend to underestimate calorie content in various food and overestimate the number of calories burned while exercising, says Nicole Brown, a dietitian with practices in Washington and Springfield, Va.
For example, it would take a 130-pound person two hours and 35 minutes of housecleaning to burn about 525 calories, about the amount in that frappe.
Or do you prefer vigorous jumping jacks?
A little over an hour of those and our 130-pound person will have burned off that drink. Vigorous bicycling? We're looking at just under an hour.
It's not easy to offset culinary splurges with exercise. It takes a lot of work, and when that work is listed in plain sight — for example as you are ready to order your frappe - you just might make a more healthful choice because you don't have time for a two-hour walk.
"I am thrilled with this research," Brown says. "It really begs the question: How am I going to exercise that much?"
It's an important concern especially for chair-bound office workers who aren't burning many calories in their day-to-day activities. "All the efficiencies of modern life mean that we have to be more conscious about our food choices and our physical activity," Brown says.
She talks about the "food part" and the "moving part" when working with clients.
"If a client wants to lose weight, we look at ways to promote a calorie deficit," she says. Most of that deficit will come from the "food part," but the moving part will also play a role, she says.
Kathy Glazer, a dietitian and owner of Eatsmartcoach.com, says she's not convinced that the exercise-cost menu information will work for everyone.
"It depends," Glazer says. "Some people will eat fast food no matter what. … A very overweight teenage kid who eats for comfort probably won't skip the cheeseburger because the menu has the calorie count and the exercise cost posted," she says.
But for highly educated and motivated adults - maybe. "Both calorie-labeling and exercise-cost information are more likely to resonate with the more educated consumer," she says.
But the easiest solution might just be to avoid the temptation altogether. "The people who are most successful at weight maintenance are those who don't eat out at all," Glazer says.
That advice might not be so realistic for everyone — after all, nearly half of Americans' food dollars are spent eating out, according to the National Restaurant Association — so if you do have to go out to a restaurant, be prepared, Glazer says. Look for code words such as "crispy" and "crunchy" (generally fatty) as well as "grilled," "baked," "steamed" and "dressing on the side" (more healthful food choices).
Part of the reason it's so difficult to eat healthfully at restaurants is that the food there is often calorie-dense, Kahan says.
"Evolutionarily, we ate less nutrition-dense food like fruits and vegetables," Kahan says. These foods have a high water and fiber content, which fills us up without adding lots of calories.
"But today's food tends to be calorie-dense, and our bodies don't register these calories very well," he says.
In the end — even if it's not for everyone - knowing the consequences of our food choices will help put things in perspective.
"I think knowing the exercise cost might encourage you when you want something sweet to pick the biscotti about 100 calories over the lemon pound cake 500 calories," Brown says. "I think it will help people think things through a bit more."