It Takes HOW Long to Burn Off That Big Mac?

'Physical activity labels' may help consumers think before they eat

Say you just left a hard workout at the gym, and you stop by the deli for a quick snack. You're choosing between a 250-calorie premade smoothie or a small, 100-calorie bag of popcorn. In addition to the standard nutritional info, the smoothie label reads, “This item provides enough energy for 75 minutes of walking,” and the popcorn label says “This item provides enough energy for 30 minutes of walking.” Does that make sense to you, and, more importantly, will it help you choose between the two? A new study says that it could.

The study, published this week in Nutrition Journal, investigated the types of food labels that best show people how much caloric energy they consume. Translating the calories into minutes of walking (for a 160-pound person to burn them off) was the clear winner, deemed more effective than traditional nutrition labels by three different focus groups.

The focus groups were conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In all three, the majority of participants were women. Participants were presented with two activity options—walking or running—to illustrate how long it would take to burn the calories eaten. When asked their interpretations of the label, reactions varied.

One participant said, “To go back to zero, as if you’ve never had anything, as if you’d never eaten, you have to walk this amount of time to burn it off.”

Another said it was like putting an energy reading on food items.

A third participant said, “Another way of looking at it would be that the Big Mac, with 540 calories, would be equivalent of providing you enough energy to walk 167 minutes.”

Researchers chose walking over running for the recommended activity because they felt walking was more relatable than running for the average person. The study—conducted by the Oregon Health and Science University, and University of North Carolina’s Medical School and School of Public Health—claimed it was the first of its type to recommend this approach for people to make healthy choices, and it seems to work.

“What’s interesting to me is there’s only 60 calories between the top and the bottom sandwich, [but] the difference in the amount of exercise is significant,” said one participant. "I mean, it’s almost 20 minutes.”

For you, standing at the deli counter, that extra 150 calories in the smoothie takes another 45 minutes of walking to burn off. Decision made? We thought so.

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