I’d Have to DO WHAT if I Ate That?

November 4, 2014 in Exercise, Psychology of Food, Uncategorized, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health has caught my eye and my imagination regarding it’s potential for helping with weight management. The researchers, led by Sara N. Bleich at, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and their Department of Epidemiology did some very innovative research.

The researchers were looking at the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB). They designed different signs with caloric information; one sign gave the absolute calories of the food; another sign gave the number of teaspoons of sugar; and a third sign gave the number of minutes of running or miles of walking necessary to burn off a beverage.

One of the outcomes of the Bloomberg study was that even the signs with only the calories encouraged the subjects to purchase water or diet soda instead of a SSB. But the signs that displayed the physical activity had a stronger effect than the other types of signs. Another exciting piece of information learned from the study was that the subjects persisted in making better choices even after the signs were removed. I love that outcome – when education really ‘clicks,’ that is, really is internalized, then it can be very effective, very powerful.

Many chain fast food establishments will begin posting calories on their menus in early 2015. The problem is that studies have shown that many people do not have the basis for interpreting and acting on a number like this – number of calories in a drink or food. Many just don’t understand what an eight hundred calorie meal means to them personally. But showing them how much activity they would have to do to burn the calories off seems to get and hold their attention.  It is vivid and easy to understand. It might even be enough to help people change their unhealthy habits like the Bloomberg study participants did.

You may know and understand calories better than the teenagers in the Bloomberg study, but maybe you have a family member, a patient/client or friend that you’re trying to help who doesn’t have a healthy appreciation for calories. Certainly, one of the snags of posting the amount of calories that it takes to burn off a certain food item is that it varies quite a bit from person to person. In general, men burn more calories for the same activity (more muscle mass) than women; young people burn more than older people, there is variation in individuals (some just have a faster metabolic rate) and one of the biggest variations is how much the individual weighs. So calculating exactly the amount of calories that you as an individual will burn for a given amount of time and intensity will have some variation to it. But having said that I still believe that we can get some real mileage toward changing behavior from the Bloomberg study.

Many charts that help people get an idea of how much activity is needed to burn a certain number of calories try to address at least the impact of body weight differences. Others address gender, age and body weight. But the biggest variation is weight. So I thought I’d share a little math equation that may be helpful.

Charts frequently include a hypothetical 150-pound person. It’s a good standard median low number. Even if the chart you are looking at gives the exercise calories at every 10 or 20 pounds, you may want to know a little more precisely what that means at your weight. So all you do is divide your weight by 150 pounds and that will give you a factor to use on the calories or time you see on the 150-pound person chart. If you weigh more than 150 pounds (You can do the same thing with a kg chart.) you will end up with one point something (e.g., 1.33 or 1.8) and if you weigh less than 150 you will end up with a decimal less than one. Then you can take your resulting individual factor and multiply it by the number of calories on the 150-pound person’s chart for any exercise. One example to illustrate this would be to use the The NutriBase Exercise Calories Expenditures Chart.  Let’s say that the individual weighs 230 pounds; you would, therefore, divide 230 pounds by 150 pounds. The individual would discover that they have a factor of 1.53. If they then wanted to know more about how many calories that they would burn for bicycling at 10 miles per hour, for an hour, they would go to the chart for a 150 pound person bicycling 10 miles per hour and find that a 150 pound person would burn 188 calories per hour. The individual would then multiply the 188 calories by 1.53. That would tell them that they would burn 288 calories per hour. Now on the NutriBase chart you could get pretty close to the calories just by saying that it is somewhere between 275 and 300 calories per hour. But on many charts you are not given that much information. In addition, you may notice that the chart jumps by 20-pound increments and you may desire a more precise estimate. Additionally, if you weigh over 300 pounds the chart is not as helpful – but you can still use the 150 lb information and multiple by your factor to get an estimate.

Once you have a calorie level by the hour, just divide by 60 minutes to know how many calories you’d burn per minute. If you then know the calorie level in an item that you are considering to eat you could say to yourself. Yikess, I’d have to walk at 3 miles per hour (2 calories a minutes for a 150 pound person) for 400 minutes (6.7 hours) to burn one single 800-calorie Burger King Quad Stacker. Then the person has to decide if it’s worth it or it’s not.

Since the holidays are coming I thought that I’d choose a few holiday favorites, to help drive home the impact of holiday goodies. One cup of eggnog is about 343 calories. So if you weigh 150 pounds, you have to walk at the rate of 3 miles per hour, for 2.86 hours. Times 60 minutes per hour, that is 171.5 minutes or 2 hours and 51 minutes (almost 3 hours). It would be more time if you’re a woman, older or weigh less than 150 pounds. Ouch!  One cup of eggnog has always been a calorie dense item; but when you relate it to you as an individual, it may be helpful to be careful with eggnog.

I tried this particular example on Vic (Dr. Grandpa); as he enjoys eggnog. I confirmed with him his knowledge that eggnog is a calorie-dense holiday treat – he already knew that. So I asked him to guess how long it would take him to burn off one cup of eggnog by walking at 3 miles per hour. He guessed that it would be about 40 minutes; but the reality is that it would be a lot closer to 2 hours and 37 minutes (14 minutes less because he weighs more than 150 pounds). He said, “I don’t want any eggnog.” and “it’s not worth it.” I’m thinking that he probably won’t want to forever deny himself of any eggnog, but he might be more careful with how much he drinks.

I can understand that you probably don’t want to calculate all the food you eat to learn what it means to your activity goals. But it may be a powerful help to your intake goals, all the same, to do it for a few items.

Turkey stuffing is my absolute favorite holiday food. I almost drool when I think of turkey stuffing. I’m not talking the dry bread, but the kind my grandmother taught me to make. It’s loaded with butter. The calories range between 350 to 550 calories per cup. We’re talking a big ole Ouch! When I think in terms of exercising, and say 450 calories a cup, it may help me be more careful. Three and a half hours, at the rate of 3.5 miles per hour seems like a long walk for this one indulgence. Think of those slow strolls that the family takes to burn off the Thanksgiving meal. Yes, it’s a great tradition, but it’s probably going to take lots more than one slow walk around the block. Maybe I should strive to stick with ½ cup for the Thanksgiving holiday. I can still enjoy the flavor with a ½ cup serving; and it’s lots easier to deal with 225 calories than 450 calories.

One-eighth of a 9” pecan pie has about 456 calories. So I’d be back to near the same number for the turkey stuffing. Maybe a sliver of pie would be best for me; just to enjoy the taste.

Traditional sweet potato casserole is listed as 684 calories per serving. But do notice that a serving is 1/8 of the recipe. That’s enough calories for many people without anything else. One way of managing these high calorie items is to choose to take less than a serving; in this case; one-sixteenth is still 342 calories. Another way of trying to not balloon up from one meal is to try a new recipe. I don’t know how good this particular recipe is, but this is one example.   Another way around the high calorie traditional butter laden sweet potato casseroles is to try one of the new recipes for layered apples and yams or sweet potatoes. This recipe delivers ½ cups for 167 calories; it sounds really delicious to me.

Certainly we each need to decide if the holiday will be marred by not eating a large serving of all the traditional foods; or if we can get by with less, or with something a little different. But the possibility exists that thinking in terms of what we’d have to do to burn off the calories may serve us well. It’s not a surprise to those of us who have gained weight each and every holiday season that we can’t exercise off a big meal in a short period of time. Sometimes the answer to what I’d have to do to eat that; makes it perfectly clear that I need to avoid it or eat very little of it to remain at a healthy weight.