Subway riders in the Big Apple saw exactly this calorie–physical activity equivalence approach rolled out in fall 2011, when posters warned them that they would need to walk three miles—from Union Square in Manhattan to Brooklyn—to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce soda. “We found that this information was new for many people and helped people better understand the number of calories in a sugary beverage,” says Susan Kansagra, assistant commissioner of the city’s Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Tobacco Control.
New York is, of course, the same city that instituted a requirement in 2008 that required restaurant chains with more than five locations to list calorie content on their menus. Although some studies have found an appreciable reduction in calorie consumption following this rule, a handful have not seen a difference. Meanwhile public health advocates are waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to publish a final version of a rule proposed in April 2011 that would require restaurants with more than 20 locations nationwide to list caloric information on their menus. The agency has estimated that approximately 1,640 chains with a total of 278,600 establishments across the country would fall under this rule.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Science in the Public Interest, is optimistic that calorie counts on their own will make a big difference in the fight against the obesity epidemic in the U.S. “We don’t know what the full impact of menu labeling is, and we won’t know until it’s been in effect nationally for several years,” Wootan says. She’s less sanguine about adding physical activity labels: “It’s a clever idea, but for most restaurants’ menus it probably wouldn’t be practical.” The addition of such information means that menus “could really get cluttered and hard to read.”
In the meantime those curious about physical activity equivalents of the food they eat can chew on this: the recent publication Convert Anything to Calories reportedly states that you can burn off the calories in one Big Mac with 350,000 clicks of a computer mouse.