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Menus that list exercise times, not calorie counts, may lead to healthier choices for diners

Would you be dissuaded from eating that cheeseburger if you knew how much exercise it would take for you to work it off?

Researchers at Texas Christian University in Forth Worth, Texas found out that subjects who were offered a menu that showed the number of minutes of brisk walking it would take to burn off the calories consumed from the food were more likely to choose healthier options than those who were given menus with or without calorie counts.


"Brisk walking is something nearly everyone can relate to, which is why we displayed on the menu the minutes of brisk walking needed to burn food calories," said Ashlei James, a graduate student at TCU, said in a press release.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires chain restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide to post calorie contents for each of their menu items. However, the study authors noted that previous studies have shown that the introduction of these calorie counts -- some voluntarily by chains -- have not deterred people from eating more calories.

The researchers asked 300 men and women between the ages of 18 to 30 to look at a menu with either calorie labels, a menu without calorie labels or a menu that listed the amount of minutes of brisk walking it would take to negate the calories consumed if a person ate that option. For example, a woman would have to walk for two hours to get rid of the calories in a quarter-pound double cheeseburger.

All the menus had the same food options, which included burgers, chicken sandwiches or tenders, salad, fries, desserts, soda and water.

There was no difference observed in ordering choices between the group that had menus with calorie labels and those that saw a menu without them. However, the exercise menu group ordered foods that contained 100 fewer calories on average.

"This study suggests there are benefits to displaying exercise minutes to a group of young men and women," author Meena Shah, a clinical associate professor of kinesiology at TCU, said in a press release. "We can't generalize to a population over age 30, so we will further investigate this in an older and more diverse group. This is the first study to look at the effects of displaying minutes of brisk walking needed to burn food calories on the calories ordered and consumed."

Victoria Taylor, a senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation who was not involved in the study, told the BBC that highlighting healthier meal options can help people make better choices about what they want to eat. Still, restaurants should also play a role in helping people be healthier.

"While displaying the amount of exercise needed to burn calories is an interesting idea, there's more to a heart-healthy diet than calorie counting," she stated. "Restaurants can also take steps to make meals healthier by serving appropriate portion sizes and reducing the amount of salt, saturated fat and sugar in their dishes. Whether eating at home or dining out, a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg is the best way to protect your heart."

The study was presented on April 23 at the Experimental Biology 2013 meeting in Boston and the findings are considered preliminary.