Would you get fitter faster if your breakfast burrito came with the warning that to burn it off you must perform 40 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio? Probably.
Some health experts are beginning to think that this kind of Eating-for-Dummies approach may be just the ticket to encouraging healthier choices.
One of its proponents is Sara Bleich, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose work was recently featured in The Atlantic. Her experiments have shown some positive results, which she recently published in the American Journal of Public Health.
To test her theory that practical caloric equivalents were helpful, Bleich posted signs like “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” at convenience stores in Baltimore.
The results: people bought fewer sugary drinks—or at least smaller sizes.
Though the system isn’t foolproof, it does have some obvious perks, says Christy Brissette, a registered dietitian based in Toronto.
For one, it’s easy.
“Many people don’t know how to use the Nutrition Facts tables, but putting calorie information into practical terms is a step in the right direction,” she explains.
The knowledge is useful and may curb “mindless eating” by making people aware of the price of their indulgences. “This will cause people to question whether that can of pop is really worth adding a 50-minute run to their day.”
But the system does have some drawbacks, too. “It might encourage people to think that all calories are the same, i.e., ‘I can have sugary drinks every day if I exercise a certain amount to burn off the calories from them each day,’” says Brissette. A healthy diet doesn’t just look at calories but also at the nutritional values of food—the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. “Calories aren’t everything: quality of food matters.”
To that end, Brissette says—unsurprisingly—that we should be getting most of our calories from “whole foods that provide fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.” We should also keep added sugar to a minimum.
“Even active people shouldn’t have more than 10 percent of their daily calories in the form of added sugar, which equals about 12 teaspoons per day,” she says. (FYI, one can of regular cola has 10 teaspoons.)
Here, Brissette breaks down five foods by their exercise equivalents:
1. Tim Horton’s wild blueberry muffin, 340 calories = 1 hour of swimming or 45 minutes of running or 90 minutes of weight training
2. Cheeseburger, 535 calories = 2 hours of weight training or 2 hours and 30 minutes of walking
3. A regular-size New York Fries classic poutine, 950 calories = 3 hours of swimming or 1 hour and 45 minutes of running or 1 hour of skipping
4. Twix bar, 248 calories = 30 minutes on the stairclimber or 40 minutes of tennis
5. 1.5 oz bag of kettle chips, 210 calories = 1 hour of walking or 30 minutes on the stairclimber
6. Starbucks venti pumpkin spice latte, 470 calories = 50 minutes of running or 1 hour and 15 minutes of cycling