You Want a Treadmill with Those Fries?


Click to view table. Four different menu labels used in the study.

You wouldn’t think an article titled “Potential effect of physical activity based menu labels on the calorie content of selected fast food meals” would be all that exciting. (In fact, my students might point out, who expects any journal article to be all that sexy?) However, the authors of this piece in Appetite offer what seems to be a pretty revolutionary idea to help us battle obesity, clogged arteries, and our general penchant toward gluttony in the American population (and perhaps everywhere else in the world).

Essentially, the authors argue, it is far more effective to provide both a calorie count and the equivalent exercise required to burn that food off our hips if we want eaters to consider what they eat. For most eaters, calories are pretty meaningless numbers but when we visually remind them what calories add to the bottom line (or just the bottom), they tend to make different choices the authors claim. Other research has found similar results when we provide the work required to burn off that soda you drink every day.

On the surface, this idea seems brilliant. Like the anti-smoking signs in my doctor’s office showing nasty yellow teeth and black lungs, one can only imagine the impact of finding out that Big Mac you had for lunch equals 78 minutes of walking. (Is it indelicate to argue the person exercising on the poster should look like someone who eats hamburgers all the time? Super sizing could take on a whole new meaning.)

Imagine if we took this idea to it’s logical next step? Happy meals would come with pedometers. Your optional side with the Hunger Buster Meal Deal would be a pair of tennis shoes and a map of local walking trails. If we really want to go crazy, let’s invent straws that only work while you are walking. No sedentary sipping allowed.

Color me skeptical, though, of the long term benefits of this approach. Don’t get me wrong. I think a label with photos is far more effective than one with just a bunch of numbers. Heck, based on our most recent debt crisis, most American’s can’t balance their checkbooks. What makes anyone think we can count calories properly?

The problem with the interactive menu is our overall ignorance about eating or burning calories. I consider myself a half-way intelligent person who eats (mostly) well. I get my 5 fruits and veggies, avoid over eating, rarely eat fast food, only drink cola if there’s rum in it, and I limit my dessert consumption (most of the time). I walk almost every day for 30-45 minutes. We’ve raised our boys to understand eating well and being active matters and we try to model that advice.

But I have absolutely no earthly idea how many calories I consume in any given day or how many calories I need to consume so that I don’t pass out or start losing weight. I can tell I’m gaining weight because my pants get tighter.

I’ll also admit the obvious: when I go to McDonalds, I already know the food isn’t all that good for me. While I will admit my faith in human intelligence wains some days, I highly doubt anyone walking into Burger King thinks he’s waltzing into a health food store. A sign telling me I need to exercise after scarfing down 12 nuggets is about as useful as a sign showing me what happens after the 6th beer. (Or is it two signs?)

Menu-based labels drawings might, in the beginning, cause me to go with the medium fries, but I think attacking my choice of fast food meal size misses the point. We are seeing a relatively consistent increase in obesity across all income levels. Certainly, there are some complexities regarding race and gender, but for the most part fat cells don’t care about our bank accounts.

In other words, walk into an KFC in America and you will find a good economic cross section of America.

They are there because the food is inexpensive and convenient, but mostly we are there because it’s fast. Perhaps, instead of worrying about my choice of fast food, we might start asking why so many people need fast and inexpensive food.

The drive-thru window lets me leverage my time for other pursuits. Like working longer hours to pay for my health insurance. Or working two jobs to pay the mortgage on my little piece of the American dream. Or making the note on a second car so my partner can go to work (so we can pay for the  . . . ). Or letting my children play sports after school. Or . . ., well, you get the idea.

The issue, then, isn’t calories and exercise. Hell, if I had 78 minutes of free time to walk every day I wouldn’t be going through the drive-thru with 2 hungry kids.

While I applaud the authors of the study (and I don’t want to sound like I dismiss their data), I also think they are studying the symptom not the cure. Fast food used to be a treat or something we picked up on the road so we could keep on trucking down the line.

Over the years, the food hasn’t changed. It’s still fast, greasy, fattening, and mostly bad for you. What’s changed is our need and desire for speed. What we need is a menu-based choice that shows us how to slow down our lives so we can eat less often on the run and more food in our homes.

And they need to hurry up. I’ve got to stop by KFC on the way home tonight.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

5 Responses to You Want a Treadmill with Those Fries?

  1. Pingback: It’s not just about the calories | Broadside

  2. The larger issue (pun intended) is not just time compression, (in America, being productive trumps everything), but hunger not just for food/calories, but for real pleasure. I’m trying hard to lose weight (30+ pounds) but unlike the last time (which worked fast due to a strict diet) I am being more careful about choices and allowing myself the pleasure of a glass (or 2) of wine and dessert (on weekends), while knowing that everything has calories, and some things have many more than others! Simply counting all those calories up doesn’t address the much more fundamental and challenging issues of what we really most want to eat or drink (nutrition, self-discipline, self-awareness, time, income all affect these choices) in any given day.

    I did an eight-day silent retreat two years ago and when I re-emerged into the noisy chaotic world I was much more aware how noisy environments made me unconsciously eat more faster. Even that small piece of information has helped me.

  3. briggsy2155 says:

    Truth be told. If everyone were to eat smaller, lighter meals more often their own metabolism would fix themselves. As well as some cardio. Maybe walking the dog or running up and down your stairs a few times. It doesn’t have to be that intense.

  4. Evelyn So says:

    Very interesting!!!

    I agree with you that the popularity of fast food has more to do with affordability (both in terms of time and money) than deliberate choice based on one’s knowledge (we ALL know an apple is better than a plate of fries).

    However, I think there might be some good in testing out that kind of menu, even just as a “don’t say I did not tell you” kind of warning. It may also be beneficial for kids who are already learning about food labels in school.

    I log what I eat and use a HRM to track during my workouts…the cal-in-cal-out model works for me (and many on But, and this is a big BUT, is that how much cal burns depends on a lot of factors. A man half my age and twice my size will NOT burn calories at the same rate as I do. So, the whole eat-X-walk-Y thing can be very misleading (I almost sense a lawsuit).

    Slow down, less eating out, more home meals …this sounds like the whole food movement started by Jamie Oliver 🙂

    • John Wegner says:

      Good point about burning calories. I think that’s also what makes it so difficult for us to try and follow any diet that is based on counting calories. Clearly, we know losing weight requires burning more calories than we eat, but keeping track is so complex. I’m all for trying out the menu. Perhaps, we should focus on kids and the lunch room at school?

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