• Menu labeling with a twist

    I’ve been skeptical about menu labeling, not because I think the idea is bad, but because I‘m unconvinced that it will work in practice. That said, I’m always happy to be proven wrong. I’ve personally found it can help guide my choices, but I’ve not yet seen that it will work on a public health scale.

    Researchers are savvy, though, and they’ve come up with a new idea that  might work better:

    In this study we examined the effect of physical activity based labels on the calorie content of meals selected from a sample fast food menu. Using a web-based survey, participants were randomly assigned to one of four menus which differed only in their labeling schemes (n = 802): (1) a menu with no nutritional information, (2) a menu with calorie information, (3) a menu with calorie information and minutes to walk to burn those calories, or (4) a menu with calorie information and miles to walk to burn those calories. There was a significant difference in the mean number of calories ordered based on menu type (p = 0.02), with an average of 1020 calories ordered from a menu with no nutritional information, 927 calories ordered from a menu with only calorie information, 916 calories ordered from a menu with both calorie information and minutes to walk to burn those calories, and 826 calories ordered from the menu with calorie information and the number of miles to walk to burn those calories. The menu with calories and the number of miles to walk to burn those calories appeared the most effective in influencing the selection of lower calorie meals (p = 0.0007) when compared to the menu with no nutritional information provided. The majority of participants (82%) reported a preference for physical activity based menu labels over labels with calorie information alone and no nutritional information. Whether these labels are effective in real-life scenarios remains to be tested.

    It’s old school now to put calories up on the menus. But these researchers tried putting up how much you’d need to walk (exercise) in order to burn off those calories. It wasn’t surprising that people ordered the most calories from when they had a menu with no information at all. They ordered about 90 calories less if you put calorie information on the menu, and about 100 calories less if you put both calorie information and the minutes you’d need to walk to burn them off on the menu. Here’s the kicker, though. They ordered almost 200 calories less if you put both the calorie information and the distance they’d need to walk to burn off the calories.

    Why? I have no idea. Maybe people really don’t like the idea of walking far. But telling them how much they’d need to walk seemed to be more of a deterrent to eating high calorie foods than anything else. This deserves further thought.


    • Would have been interesting to see miles without calorie information.

      The idea of a calorie is probably somewhat abstract for people — hard to equate to something more tangible like walking 1 mile. But very interesting study.

    • I think one possible explanation could be something like this. Our sense of time is rather vague. And it can vary greatly depending on things like interest and attention. Our sense if space, though, is likely more concrete.

      So if the menu says “x means 3 hours of walking,” people don’t really know what that means. Is it 3 hours all at once? Is it an afternoon at the mall?

      But if the menu says “x means 9 miles of walking,” (which would be 3 hours of walking at 3mph – a moderate clip), well 9 miles is two towns over! I would never think of walking that far! I would totally drive that distance! (At least, that is what a fair number of people could plausibly be thinking!)

      Having to spend the afternoon shopping around the mall doesn’t seem so bad. Having to bike two towns over – that might!

    • Related to Philospher Dan’s point: in an economic sense, the fact that # miles walked has a greater effect than # minutes walked could be due to the value of time and discounting.

      People who choose to live more unhealthily may also tend to heavily discount time– i.e., not value the future as much as the present (in relative terms).

      Heavy discounters tend to procrastinate. When exercise is measured in time/minutes, they may also undervalue/underestimate the future (i.e., time is cheap). However, when exercise is measured in terms of pain/effort– a finite goal of, say, running three miles, may seem a lot more daunting.

    • Perhaps the difference is because people have a much easier time fudging the data on time. If you ask someone how long it takes them to walk a mile, they will give you wildly inaccurate answers. If you ask people how many minutes they spent exercising, the number will almost always be much larger than the time they actually spent, in part because they aren’t having much fun when the exercise, and in part because people tend to include things like getting changed, showering, filling the water bottle etc as time spend exercising.

      By contrast, people have a much more concrete notion of distances. You can’t count your post-exercise shower as part of the distance walked.

    • Nah, it’s simpler than that. Americans don’t walk and thus find the idea of walking terrifying, so realizing that they’d have to do a lot of something they’re unaccustomed to shocks them into sensibility. Measuring calories in the miles you need to walk them off is seriously brilliant.

      There’s a reason for this. It’s the car. There’s no such thing as an American without a car. Suggest to an American that cars are stupid*, and they’ll freak out. I made it to 32 without owning a car or learning to drive and it bothered someone so much he _gave_ me a car. (Really!)

      *: The really are: they are expensive, stinky (gasoline can’t possibly not be carcinogenic), dangerous (although they don’t kill quite as many people as malpractice), and a sink of time.

      • I think the American attachment to cars makes more sense when you realize that outside of places like NYC or Chicago, owning a car is largely the difference between employable and not employable. The chances of being able to find an apartment within walking distance of an employer in a place like Cincinnati, or being able to find a reliable bus rout to an employer, is almost zero. And unless you can afford a limousine service, there are basically no taxis either.

    • Interesting – but the approach is a bit misleading. Of course, your body burns calories when you’re sitting, thinking, putting away clothes, digesting food, sleeping. That would likely come up in a policy debate. Anyway, an interesting idea.

    • “Going for a three-mile walk” sounds like a chore, like planned exercise with no other purpose (the purpose is covering the distance). “Going for an hour’s walk,” on the other hand, sounds vaguely recreational. The distance may be roughly the same but the way we describe it colors our reaction to it.

      Of course the only reason the issue even arises is that “walking” has been chosen as the default means of calorie burning (you can’t sit for three miles), rather than “sitting” or “standing” or “sleeping,” all of which burn calories at rates not greatly below ordinary walking. If the intent is to implicitly suggest that at least walking is necessary to burn any significant amount of calories (an absurd idea on the face of it, but one which people seem to be readily susceptible to), it is misleading if not outright manipulative. More genuinely helpful might be information showing the percentage of one’s daily calories the meal supplies.