There is plenty of good nutrition information in the world today, but we aren't necessarily any healthier as a result, or any slimmer. The Nutrition Facts label tells us what's in our food and good nutrition websites explain everything that happens to it once we eat it. Then there are coaches, counselors and apps to keep us on track.
Maybe we need to start looking elsewhere for guidance?
A new Coke ad called Be OK spends 33 seconds equating the 140 calories in a can of Coke with physical activity. It depicts someone walking her dog, getting into a groove while dancing, and doing a victory jig after throwing a strike in a bowling alley. With each fun activity we're told how long we'd have to do it to burn off the calories in a can of Coke.
Research shows that's a message people respond to.
What's the Problem?
The concept of "energy balance" is a difficult one for Americans to grasp. Results from numerous consumer surveys done to test our knowledge of the connection between calories in and calories out explain why.
These studies have consistently shown the majority of us don't know how many calories a day we are currently eating, how many calories we need for our height, weight, activity level and health status, or how many calories we should be eating to lose weight —- something the majority of us need to do.
Equally important, we have no clue how many calories we burn off each day, or more properly stated, how much energy we use to fuel the many functions our bodies perform 24/7. That information is essential to the energy balance equation.
Who's to Blame?
Caloric information has been on food labels since 1990. Books, brochures, and websites also provide detailed lists of the caloric value for everything we eat. And since 2008, chain restaurants in several big cities have been posting the caloric content for their menu items right up there along with the price.
To make it even easier for people to see the caloric content of their purchases, since 2011 some food and beverage companies have been putting the calories per serving on the front of their labels, not just on the Nutrition Facts panel found on the back or side of the box. But still, we have grown heavier.
What's Been Missing?
Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) may have found a missing link. They designed a study to test what type of information might encourage diners to order differently from fast food menus. It compared four menu options: 1) just calorie information, 2) calories plus minutes to walk to burn the calories, 3) calories plus miles to walk to burn the calories, and 4) no calorie information.
The participants were 802 middle-aged women who were randomly assigned to one of the four groups. All were asked what they would order for themselves from a menu that featured fast food burger meals, sandwiches, salads, side orders, desserts and drinks. The only difference on the menus was the calorie and walking information.
Those who ordered from the menus with the calories and the number of miles needed to walk off those calories showed the biggest difference in their ordering preferences compared to those who had no information on their menus. Their orders contained 194 fewer calories, while the group that had calories and minutes of walking ordered 104 fewer calories, and those who had just calorie information ordered 93 fewer than the group with no information.
When asked which type of information they would prefer on menus, 82% of the participants said they preferred menus that showed physical activity, as minutes or miles walked, over menus that just had calories or no nutritional information at all. In their conclusions, published in the journal Appetite, the researchers state that it may be easier to imagine oneself walking a certain distance than trying to figure out what percentage of our daily caloric intake a menu item is worth.
It looks to me like The Coca-Cola Company has put the ball in our court with their new ad. What's your next move?