Restaurant Customers Choose Healthier Food If They’re Told How Far They Have To Walk To Burn It Off

Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I-NY) may have lost this round of sparring over his proposed limits on sugary drinks, but another of his public health initiatives, requiring chain restaurants to post nutritional information on menus, seems promising. According to a new study in the research journal Appetite, people are most affected by menus listing not only calorie content of a menu item but also how long they would have to walk in order to burn it off.

An online survey presented 802 people with one of four menus: some saw just the calorie count, some were given the calories and the amount of time it would take to burn off the meal, others saw the calories and the distance needed to walk it off, and some were given no nutritional information at all. People who received no nutritional information ordered the most caloric meals, while people who saw the distance they needed to walk to burn it off ordered meals that were 200 calories lighter:

People who viewed the menu without nutritional information ordered a meal totaling 1,020 calories, on average, significantly more than the average 826 calories ordered by those who viewed menus that included information about walking-distance. Study participants ordered meals adding up to averages of 927 calories and 916 calories from menus with only calorie information or calorie information plus minutes walking, respectively, although the differences between these two totals were not statistically significant.

Other studies on menu labeling have proven inconclusive, though some evidence indicates restaurants modify recipes and portion sizes in order to post a lower calorie count. This new study, however, suggests that the problem is not necessarily customers’ apathy to their health but lack of context in which to read calorie counts on menus. A menu that directly translates calories into physical activity may be the key to changing eating habits.

A more detailed menu labeling rule could have a huge impact on the national obesity crisis. The average American eats restaurant food 5.8 times per week, ingesting a third of their daily calories from eating out.

Since fall 2011, New Yorkers have already been exposed to posters warning they would need to walk 3 miles to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce soda as part of a public health campaign. Restaurants are already required to post the calories of each dish by 21 state and local laws. As part of the Affordable Care Act, the rest of the nation should soon start seeing calorie counts at restaurants with 20 or more chains. While the restaurant industry vehemently opposed New York’s original menu labeling law in 2006, they have since come around to support a national menu labeling standard. The FDA, however, has dragged its feet on releasing the rules.