Do you know how far you have to walk in order to burn off a piece of chocolate cake? Most foods have this obscure value called a calorie but do you really understand what a calorie is? Part of the problem of counting calories is that people can not relate to the concept of a calorie. I propose that when people can relate to the amount of energy in foods, then they can better judge the impact the food may have on their diet.
Imaging that you are in a foreign country and you ask the concierge, “How far is it to the museum?”, and they tell you, “8 furlongs”. If you are not familiar with this unit of measurement you wouldn’t know whether to take a taxi or walk. However, if they said, it is a 15 minute walk (1 mile or 8 furlongs) then it would be easy for you to make a decision. In this post I share an experiment to try and find a better way to frame calories for people who are trying to lose weight.
To determine if there was a better way for people to relate to calories, I chose a hamburger meal that has 900 calories. I then converted that calorie content into the amount of energy that a person consumes walking as well as climbing up steps.
Next I conducted a poll on the Behavioral Economics group in LinkedIn with the question, “If you were trying to lose weight, which of the following hamburgers would you avoided based on the energy you get from eating the hamburger?”
The control group and was the calorie content of a McDonalds Happy Meal (hamburger with French fries and drink.)
The second answer presented the calories burned while walking. I chose a normal pace for an 180 pound man of 100 calories burned per mile because it would be easy for the average person to do the math.
The third answer presented the calories as the amount of stairs you would need to climb to burn the calories. The conversion factor is a little more cumbersome with a range between 5-10 calories burned per flight of 12 stairs.
Unfortunately, LinkedIn has a limit on the number of characters for the question and answers choices so a lot of information was lost when I edited the poll to fit in the allowed space. When I was editing the poll, I kept the calorie amount for a happy meal but only referred to a hamburger based on the limited space.
The poll is shown below along with the outcome:
From the result, there is no clear distinction between the control group and the walking option. It does appear that people would not try to avoid eating a burger that would allow them to climb 600 steps.
The Choices were Equal:
Even without doing the math, many people guessed that the options all represented the same food item. One way to prevent this from happening is to use a food item where the calorie content could possibly change between servings such as a plate of pasta.
Some people had an intuitive sense of the calorie content of a hamburger and were able to recognize that 900 calories sounded high for a plain hamburger and guessed correctly that 900 calories referred to a Happy Meal. By the time I recognized the error, several people had already responded to the poll and I did not want to change the poll and throw out the initial responses. Additionally my original assumption was that people did not understand the size of a calorie and while several people were able to guess the inflated numbers, many people confessed to having no reference to how big a calorie is.
Distance Walked vs. Times Walked:
Several people mentioned that they could relate better to time spent walking rather than actual distance walked. This is something that I had not considered however it does make sense. Take the example of someone going for an afternoon walk around their office building. They may not know the actual distance traveled but they would pay attention to the time in order to not be late for an afternoon meeting. Given an average speed of 4 Miles an hour, the average person would burn off roughly 6 calories for every minute walked.
Steps vs Flights:
Another comment that came up is flights of stairs instead of a number of steps. The average floor has 12 steps. I had considered this option but did not use it because I thought that the higher number of steps would be a bigger deterrent than the lower number of floors. Additionally, most people take the elevator when the have to walk up more than 3 floors so I felt that after 4 flights, people would again lose reference to the number of flights.
Framing with Energy:
One recommendation is that the energy be related to energy consumed by an electronic device such as minutes of TV watched. With all of the variation in TV sizes and efficiencies, I think this may also be an abstract reference. An idea similar to this concept would be to reference the distance a car could travel from the energy.
Attracted to Exercise Option:
One person I talked with turned the question around and was attracted to the walking option because they felt that eating the burger gave them the potential to walk 9 miles. This concept would make sense for endurance athletes who need to store up energy but the intention of the experiment is to try and help people who are dieting chose low energy foods. Remember, that framing also needs to take into account the other person’s perspective.
Recommendations / Next Steps:
To further test the concept of re-framing the energy in food, a simple label would be required that easily presents the energy content of specific food. Here are some examples. Please share any additional suggestions you have in the comments section.
Walk 20 minutes to burn this energy in this food.
Enough energy for a 20 minute walk.
You need to walk 20 minutes to burn this energy.
Losing weight by counting calories can be very confusing. Every different type of food has a different calorie density and the weight of food that you eat also impacts the amount of calories that you consume. This prevents people from developing an intuitive feeling about the calories that they consume during an average day. By using a metric that people can relate to, people may have a better understanding of the energy content of food and start to improve their decisions about the foods that they eat. With energy content listed in terms of exercise that people can relate to, people can begin to better understand when their energy input is grossly larger than their energy usage and begin the process of bringing the two in balance.
During the poll, Dan Goldstein pointed out an excellent article in Decision Science News that also addressed this same topic.