study: Menus Showing How Much Exercise Is Needed to Burn Off Fast Food Meals May Reduce Consumption

But Simply Listing Calories on Menus Was Not Effective in this Experiment

People who viewed a menu showing them how much brisk walking they would have to do to burn off their lunch, ordered 139 calories less and consumed 97 fewer calories than did a group who ordered from menus without that information. The research was conducted at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

“This study to shows that exercise-labels on a menu led to less energy consumed during the meal,” reports Meena Shah, a professor of kinesiology at TCU and the senior investigator on the study.  “And this did not lead to increased energy consumption after the meal.”

Researchers from TCU and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas conducted the experiment with 300 people between the ages of 18 and 30 who ate lunch selections from a fast food menu offered under controlled conditions on the TCU campus. The results were published this summer in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

One third of the subjects ordered fast food from a menu without any labels. Another third ordered from a menu showing the calories contained in each selection. The menu with calorie labels also told participants that most women needed to consume about 2000 kcal per day and most men around 2400 kcal.

The remainder used a menu telling them in minutes how much exercising they would have to do to burn off impact of the food they ate. The food ordered by each person was weighed as were the leftovers. Follow-up telephone calls assessed the amount of food eaten later in the day for dinner and snacks.

While those who chose from the “exercise label menu” ordered and ate less, there was no significant difference in lunch food consumption between the group who ordered from the “no-labels” menu and those who ordered from the menu listing the calories of each food item.

Previous studies also have found mixed results from listing calories on menus. That may be because people have a hard time appraising the energy content of a food item in the context of their total energy needs, Shah suggests.

“This activity requires both knowledge of total calories needed and the ability to convert the calorie content of a food item to percent of total energy needs,” says Ashlei James, lead investigator on the study and former graduate student at TCU. “Expressing the energy content of foods as the minutes of exercise needed to burn the food energy may be easier to understand.”

The sample for the study consisted largely, though not exclusively, of normal-weight non-Hispanic white college students. All of the menus contained the same food and beverage choices: eight burger selections, three salad options with the choice of five dressings, four chicken sandwich selections, chicken nuggets, chicken strips, four sides including french fries, three desserts and a choice of sodas.

The research paper is titled “Menu Labels Displaying the Kilocalorie Content or the Exercise Equivalent: Effects on Energy Ordered and Consumed in Young Adults” and was published in the journal "The Science of Lifestyle Change." In addition to Dr. Shah and Ashlei James, the other author was Beverly Adams-Huet of the Department of Clinical Sciences at UT Southwestern Medical Center. 

Source Contact Information

Texas Christian University
Associate Director of Strategic Communications Management