Fast-food consumers may eat less if label describes how long it takes to walk off calories

January 31, 2013
Someone craving a medium order of French fries might not think twice about ordering the treat – what does “380 calories” mean, after all? – but tell him that he has to walk for two hours (at 2 mph) to burn those calories, and that’s a different story. A handful of celery begins to develop a certain allure.
Dr. Anthony Viera

Dr. Anthony Viera

A study led by researchers at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found value in nutritional labeling that describes real-time energy expenditure required to burn calories in fast foods. Anthony Viera, MD, MPH, director of the Health Care and Prevention Master of Public Health program in the Public Health Leadership Program at Gillings School of Global Public Health and Charles B. Wilkerson ’06 Distinguished Scholar and associate professor of family medicine in the UNC medical school, co-authored the study, published March 1 in the journal Appetite.

Eating out – particularly eating fast food – may save time in the short run, but research has linked the typically carbohydrate-, fat- and sugar-laden prepared foods to weight gain and insulin resistance. Given that one-third of adults in the U.S. are obese, making them vulnerable to chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, hypertension and diabetes, the authors say that policy makers must explore new strategies to curb the obesity epidemic.
Viera and colleagues randomly assigned one of four types of menus to each of the 802 adult study participants. The types included menus with 1) no nutritional information, 2) calorie information, 3) calorie information and minutes to walk to burn those calories, and 4) calorie information and miles to walk to burn those calories.
Let your fingers do the walking?
Below is a list of selected prepared foods and their calorie counts.
A 160-pound adult walking at 2 mph will burn 3.2 calories per minute. Running at 6 mph, she will burn 12.8 calories per minute. The math is the reader’s to do.

  • Cheeseburger (300)
  • Double cheeseburger (540)
  • Crispy chicken sandwich (620)
  • Veggie burger (410)
  • Ketchup (15)
  • French fries, small (230)
  • Garden salad (70)
  • Garden salad, with grilled chicken (230)
  • Thousand Island dressing (320)
  • Fat-free ranch dressing (60)
  • Low-fat balsamic vinaigrette dressing (40)
  • Chocolate chip cookie (160)
  • Cola, medium (210)
  • Sweetened tea, medium (150)

The researchers found a statistical difference in the number of calories ordered, based on menu type. An average of 1,020

calories were ordered from a menu with no nutritional information; an average of 927 calories from a menu with only calorie
information; 916, from a menu with calorie information and statement of minutes one must walk to burn those calories;
and 826, from a menu with calorie information and statement
of number of miles to walk to burn the calories.
Although the “miles walked” label had the most effect on the
calorie content of menu selections, more participants reported
a preference for the “minutes walked” label (45 percent) over
the “miles walked” label (37 percent). The authors called for
more examination of the perceived differences between these
two labels, particularly to determine whether the labeling is
effective in real, rather than virtual, food consumption. However,
the fact that 82 percent of participants preferred physical-activity-based labeling suggests the value of policy change in
that direction.
Researchers also report preliminary findings that study
participants with normal body mass index (BMI) were more influenced by the activity-based labels than were those who
were overweight or obese. Future study would clarify this
difference and determine whether activity-based labeling
might be more effective in preventing overweight and obesity
than in helping people lose weight.
Other study authors are Sunaina Dowray, MPH, medical student
at UNC School of Medicine; Jonas J. Swartz, MD, MPH, alumnus
of the UNC School of Medicine and the Health Care and
Prevention MPH program, now in obstetrics and gynecology residency at Oregon Health Sciences University, in Portland; and Danielle Braxton, MPH, RD, LDN, project manager, UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.


UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or