Casa Beebe

Calorie Labels? Distance Labels? Time Labels?

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We have all seen labels like this, or the nutrition label on the back of most packaged foods, that tells us how many calories the food product we are contemplating consuming contains. (Nice alliteration, eh?)

But do we really even know what this means? 
I mean, we *think* we know what this means, or we have an idea maybe. 
Lower calorie is better. Right? 
Let’s break this down a little bit. 
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Okay, that’s not the real definition.

Calorie: 
Noun
1. Either of two units of heat energy
2. The energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1*C (now usually defined as 4.1868 joules). 
Well that’s just more than less than unhelpful. (haha…thanks Captain Jack!)
So let’s just try to understand it. Our bodies need energy to function. Calories, found in food, provide energy. If we don’t consume enough energy (calories) for our daily functions, then we may get sick, or be unable to complete acts of daily living. If we consume too much energy (calories) then our bodies are biologically adapted to store the excess energy consumed as fat. If we consume the appropriate amount of energy (calories) then our bodies have enough energy to function and complete daily living tasks, but is not provided with excess energy to store, meaning we maintain a healthy body mass. 
Whew. Ok, calorie = energy. I think I got it. 
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A basic understanding then of a calorie as a unit of energy leads to the question how much energy do I need to consume? There are lots of great sources to find this information, including free sources on the Internet, a trainer at a gym, or your doctor. But a very simple guideline is to take your current weight and multiply it by 10. (I am not any kind of doctor, trainer or dietitian, this is just my own personal experience and knowledge talking.) 
For example, a person who weighs 150 pounds would need approximately 1500 energy units (calories) per day to sustain daily activities and maintain their existing body mass. Meaning, if you want to lose weight you would need to consume less. 
Okay then we have defined a calorie and determined how many we need in a day. That is helpful. But not really. Because, as a recent study in Scientific American pointed out, “It requires a computation that many people might not find easy to make at the point of decision” (Anthony Viera, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine). Basically, people have a hard time reading a menu or nutrition label and relating that number (110 calories per serving, or 600 calories in a hamburger) to their daily caloric energy needs. 
The study noted that when subjects were given a menu with both calories counts and the distance that would be required to walk in order to “burn off” the energy consumed by that menu item, study participants ordered a meal with an average of 194 fewer calories than participants who chose from a menu containing only calorie counts. 
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That is pretty significant! Imagine, if at every meal out you were able to shave nearly 200 calories off of what you consume just by being able to relate how much energy it would take to use those calories! It gives people a tangible way to translate calories to activity. 
I mean, think about it, do you know how long you have to walk (or run or elliptical or swim or whatever) to burn off your morning latte? Or your afternoon soda? Or you favorite dessert? Or that extra pat of butter? Probably not, at least not by the numbers alone. 
What do you understand better:
1 Tablespoon of butter has approximately 100 calories. 
Or
1 Tablespoon of butter will require 1.5 miles of walking.*
*used as an example only
Personally, if I relate 1 Tablespoon of butter to a mile and a half of walking it actually means something to me, whereas the calorie count, well, doesn’t really. 
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to outlaw large sugary soda beverages. His law has hit a few snags recently, but as part of the campaign to create awareness the subways in New York had signs posted that showed New Yorkers, visually and numerically, how far they would have to walk to burn off a 20 oz sugar soda. 
I don’t know about you, but that image makes an impact! I’ve never been to New York, but it looks like a pretty decent walk (3 miles after all) from Union Square to Brooklyn. All for one 20 oz soda. 
As the Scientific American article points out, this idea has “stirred interest” in how calorie counts can be labeled on menus or food items that will allow people to have a better understanding of how much energy they are consuming, perhaps in excess of their total needs. 
It may not be the cure to obesity in this country, but I think giving the people more information about their food, and how it impacts them *does* help them make better choices overall. I think that those of us who have spent a lot of time learning about health, healthy eating, food, calories, fats, sugars, etc., think that this information is well-known, but I don’t believe that is true. I believe there is a significant portion of our population that really has no knowledge or usable understanding of calories and healthy vs. unhealthy food choices. 
Pictures like the one above or menus that express calories in terms of physical expenditure, like walking for 3 miles, may be able to make a great connection and impression upon people, which, who knows? might even lead to lesser obesity! 
What do you think? Do you know enough about calories to use just numerical data to make good choices? Or does distance and physical expenditure definitions mean more to you? 
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This entry was posted on March 19, 2013 by in health.
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