Making Better Food Choices With Exercise Equivalents

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Food calories and exercise equivalents: Do you know how many minutes of brisk walking it takes to burn off the calories in a cheeseburger?

If you’re watching your weight, you probably check the calorie counts of most of your foods. And you use that information to help you decide whether you can afford to eat something and still stay within your daily calorie budget. But as useful as it is to know how many calories a food contains, it’s not always easy to put that number in perspective.

Here’s another way to think about your calories. Instead of looking at just a number, it might be helpful to take a look at how much exercise you’d need to do in order to burn off the calories in the food you’re about to eat.

Let’s say you’re on a 1500 calorie diet. Let’s also say that you’ve had a reasonable breakfast of about 300 calories, and you’re considering a pretty hefty lunch—one that could cost you about 800 calories.  You might think to yourself, “800 calories sounds like a lot, but I can probably fit it in if I’m careful the rest of the day.”

But do you think you’d make the same decision if you knew that in order to burn off those 800 calories you’d need to swim laps nonstop for nearly two hours?

Possibly not. That’s what prompted some researchers at Texas Christian University1 to test this idea among 300 students in a few of the dining halls on campus.

The students got one of three different menus. They all had the same food and beverage items, including burgers, chicken sandwiches, French fries, desserts, soda, and water. But one menu had no calorie information for the items listed, another menu had just the calorie counts for the items, and the third menu listed the exercise equivalents of the calories in of all the menu items. An example of such exercise equivalents was 50 minutes of brisk walking to burn off the calories in an order of onion rings. Brisk walking was used as the exercise equivalent, because the researchers figured it was an activity that everyone could relate to.

Students who had just the calorie counts on their menus ate about the same amount of calories as the students who had no information on their menus. In other words, just seeing the number on the menu didn’t really make much difference when it came to food choice. But those who had the calories listed in exercise equivalents made more careful food choices and ate fewer calories. That was about 160 fewer calories at their meal than those who had no calorie information at all.

A few years ago, a similar study2 was done to see if providing the exercise equivalents of the calories in sugary drinks would have any effect on beverage choices among teenagers.

In this case, different signs were posted in several corner grocery stores. One sign simply listed only the calorie count of sugary beverages, another sign listed the calories as a percentage of the recommended daily intake, and the third provided the physical activity equivalent of the calories contained in the beverage—such as “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?”

In stores where just the calorie content was listed, the teens were less inclined to buy sugary drinks. But in cases where the exercise equivalent was posted, their odds of purchasing the beverages dropped by 50%.

Food and Exercise Calorie Equivalents of Popular Foods

Maybe you’ve never thought about your foods this way, so here’s your chance to test it out for yourself.

Here are some “brisk walking,” or exercise equivalents, for some high-calorie typical foods (and a few very low calorie foods, just for comparison).

Note: Calorie counts on restaurant items are averages based on information from several large chain restaurants. Calories burned are based on a body weight of 150 pounds (68kg). Heavier people burn more calories per minute; lighter people burn fewer calories per minute.

To burn off the calories in…                 You’d need to walk briskly nonstop for…     

30 potato chips (200 calories)                                                            33 minutes

Double cheeseburger with bacon (1250 calories)                           208 minutes

2 slices pepperoni pizza (650 calories)                                            108 minutes

A large mocha coffee with whipped cream (580 calories)                  97 minutes

A large blueberry muffin (500 calories)                                              84 minutes

20-ounce (750ml) soda (250 calories)                                               42 minutes

2 12-ounce (375ml) bottles of beer (300 calories)                             50 minutes

1 cup (425g) vanilla ice cream (525 calories)                                    88 minutes

3 large pancakes with syrup (725 calories)                                     120 minutes

Large chocolate chip cookie (450 calories)                                       75 minutes

Bagel, cream cheese + medium mocha coffee (800 calories)        133 minutes

1 slice chocolate layer cake with icing (550 calories)                       92 minutes

1 ounce (30g) cheddar cheese + 8 crackers (150 calories)             25 minutes

Croissant sandwich with ham, eggs, cheese (475 calories)             80 minutes

1 medium carrot (25 calories)                                                             4 minutes

1 cup (125g) raspberries (65 calories)                                              11 minutes

4 cups (120g) raw spinach (30 calories)                                            5 minutes

1/2 medium grapefruit (40 calories)                                                     7 minutes

What do you think? Does knowing how many minutes of walking it would take to burn off the these foods make you want to think about better choices?

1 James A, Adams-Huet B, Shah M. Am J Health Promot. 2014 Feb 27. [Epub ahead of print]
2 Bleich SN, Herring BJ, Flagg DD, Gary-Webb TL. Am J Public Health. 2012 102:329-35.

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