A Different Way to Count Calories

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

I thought I would spend a little time discussing how we can give a better tomorrow to each other by teaching a technique that makes it easier for folks to actually wrap their head around an underused idea. To illustrate this idea, let’s gather around the sweets table, and link that to the future health of our nation.

Since 1990, the United States has had a regulation requiring food producers to list ingredients of foods, along with the nutritional content, and calories. You know — it’s the little printed box on the back of the package that states serving size, ingredients and so forth.

Our society has seen a rapidly increasing number of our fellow citizens diagnosed with food allergies such as milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. It’s estimated that 4 percent of adults and 8 percent of children now have some form of food allergy. The rate grows every year, with an 18 percent rise over the past decade for which data is available. If we can steer these people away from danger, we lower their risk and healthcare spending. The label helps with that. It also contains calorie information.

The calorie information box does not work as well as we might wish. Turns out that unless the reader/eater is told how long it will take to get rid of the calories the food contains, for most people the information doesn’t impact behavior. A recent study shows this clearly.

Study author Dr. Sara Bleich from Johns Hopkins University posted three different signs outside fast-food stores that sold a lot of soda, to test which of the signs had the biggest impact on customers. She wanted to see how the words on the signs would impact soft drink buying decisions.

The first sign said the average carbonated drink contained 250 calories. The second said a can of soda would equal 10 per cent of the recommended daily calorie intake. The third said that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running for a young teenager.

Teaching the youth how much physical activity would be required to burn off the soda’s calories reduced soft drink sales to the teens by half.

Unless you have a daily routine that has physical activity equivalent to walking 1.5 miles a day, doctors put you in the “sedentary” category, and an adult male age 18-51 should eat no more than 2,400 calories a day. A similarly “sedentary” female of the same age should top out at 2,000 calories per day. Kids should consume less.

A big Mac is 540 calories. Add fries and a soda, and you are over 1,000 calories. For a kid, one meal exceeds their entire day’s ration!

However, we all know just by looking around that this information has not had a big impact on changing behavior.

Now consider this. An average 175-pound guy burns about 475 calories every hour of walking briskly. The 140-pound gal in his life burns about 380 calories as they pant along. So, think of the impact on you and your family if the calorie content is expressed not just as a raw number like “one bag of microwave popcorn has around 300 calories” but as “if you eat one bag of this stuff you must walk briskly for 45 minutes or you will gain weight.” (For real). Think of the impact on your eating habits.

Just to make sure I have your attention, here are a few more : One can of beer is about 20 minutes brisk walking, a glass of wine about 20 minutes, the smidgen of fruitcake is somewhere north of half an hour, and one apple is less than 10 minutes.

So, come Super Bowl Sunday, you could have a little fun. Put little notes with these factoids next to the refreshments. An 8 oz. bag of potato chips equals three hours walking briskly; a six-pack of beer, two hours walking; and for those cute cookies (Oh, let’s say you nibble on four), half an hour brisk walking. You may not get to watch much football, but I bet you have an interesting discussion.

If we use creative communication techniques, we can have more people see, and realize, a better future.