Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Are you listening, Mayor Bloomberg?
If you've been into a Burger King or a Panera lately – even outside of Michael Bloomberg's healthy-eating Eden of New York City – your eyes have likely glazed over a new row of numbers on the menu board. The Affordable Care Act mandated that restaurant chains with 20 or more outposts publish calorie counts for your consideration right next to the WHOPPER sandwich meal (1,160 calories) or the bread bowl of broccoli cheddar (960 calories!).
The idea, a classic nudge, was that consumers might curb their intake of fatty food if they had calorie counts staring them down at the decisive moment of purchase. As it has turned out, though, most of us are entirely unmoved by this data. Research suggests that calorie labeling has no effect on decision-making for most diners. Your own experience probably tells you this, too.
So how about some even more creative prodding? Researchers at Texas Christian University and the UT Southwestern Medical Center have proposed an alternative: Instead of warning people of how many calories they're about to consume, tell them how long they would have to walk to burn the calories off. Eyeing a quarter-pound double cheeseburger? That's two hours. And we're talking a brisk walk here, not a post-meal stroll.
In a study (not yet published), the researchers presented 300 adults, aged 18-30, with menus labeled with straight calorie counts, no calories at all, or the exercise needed – in minutes of walking – to burn off those calories. All three menus listed the same food and drink items (and the people looking at them had no clue what these researchers were up to). Subjects faced with the prospect of exercise wound up ordering and consuming fewer calories. There was no difference between the other two groups.
Other demographics might respond differently to this not-so-subtle reminder that there's only one good way to burn off a Big Mac once you've downed it. And there's obviously a separate conversation to be had about whether restaurants should be compelled to discourage customers from eating their tastiest products. But we like that public health researchers have found a way to leverage America's widespread aversion to walking: threaten people with the idea of it at the drive-through window.
Top image: Mike Blake/Reuters