You walk into a fast food restaurant and examine the menu. You could get a salad with grilled chicken and dressing on the side. Or you could get a double cheeseburger.
Seeing the calories listed next to each item isn't likely to affect your decision, according to a new study being presented at the Experimental Biology 2013 meeting this week. But seeing the amount of time it would take you to work those calories off at the gym just might.
Researchers at Texas Christian University asked 300 men and women aged 18 to 30 years to purchase food from one of three fast food menus. All of the menus contained the same options, including burgers, chicken tenders, salad, French fries and desserts.
One group's menu had no labels of any kind. The second group's menu was labeled with the total calories in each item. The third group's menu was labeled with the number of minutes of brisk walking it would take someone to burn off the calories in the meal.
People who ordered off the activity-labeled menu ordered 139 fewer calories and consumed 97 fewer calories on average than those who ordered off the menu without labels.
There was no significant difference in the number of calories ordered or consumed between the group that ordered off the calorie-labeled menu and the group that saw no labels. There was also no significant difference between the group that ordered off the activity-labeled menu and the group that ordered off the calorie-labeled menu.
If consumers are aware of the number of minutes they'd have to exercise to work off the calories they are eating, they are more likely to order lower-calorie options. Although the difference in the study results was small, "a 100-calorie reduction on a daily basis could lead to some weight loss over the long term," senior researcher Meena Shah said in an e-mail. Shah mentored the study, conducted by graduate student Ashlei James.
Shah stresses that the results of this study need to be verified by other studies with a more diverse group of participants before policy recommendations can be made about restaurant menu labeling.
Do your research before ordering. "Readers should become aware of the amount of exercise it would take to burn the food calories consumed and make appropriate food choices," Shah said. "It would not be feasible for most people to exercise for one to two hours a day in order to burn the calories from a very high-calorie food item."