Fast food menus with calorie count, miles may lead to healthier choices

January 2, 2013

A study published in Appetite shows that people may choose healthier fast food options when shown not only the calories the food contains, but also how many miles they would have to walk to burn off those calories.

For the study, which used a web-based survey to gather information on the participants’ choices, the researchers randomly assigned them to one of four groups, each given a different menu:

  • A menu with calorie information
  • A menu with calorie information and the minutes of walking required to burn off those calories
  • A menu with calorie information and the miles of walking required to burn off the calories
  • A menu with no nutritional information (the control group for comparison)

The survey asked participants to imagine they were in a fast food restaurant looking to choose a meal for themselves. What would they order from the menu, based on the information provided? The options on offer included burger meals, sandwiches, sides, salads, dressing, desserts, and drinks. The menu was compiled from online menus of common fast food restaurants in the United States, without pictures. One of the options was a regular burger containing 250 calories that would take 78 min or 2.6 miles (4.2 km) of walking to burn off.

The results showed a significant difference in the average number of calories ordered based on menu type. The group that had menus with no nutritional information ordered on average 1,020 calories, compared with 927 calories in the group that had only calorie information, 916 calories in the group given calories and minutes of walking, and 826 calories in the group given calories and miles of walking information.

The researchers concluded that “the menu with calories and the number of miles to walk to burn those calories appeared the most effective in influencing the selection of lower calorie meals when compared to the menu with no nutritional information provided.” However, it should be noted that these labels need to be tested in real-life scenarios to see if they are still effective.

They researchers also reported that the vast majority (82%) of the 802 women participants said they preferred to see physical activity based menu labels rather than labels with calorie information alone or no nutritional information.