A fascinating new survey conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine showed that when the number of calories for menu items was translated into physical activity, people made better eating decisions. To put that in plain English, when people saw they’d have to walk 2.6 miles to burn off the burger they were ordering, they ordered less food.
In the survey researchers tested four label options: one listed just the food item, one listed the food and the number of calories it contained, one listed food, calories and the equivalent walking distance for the those calories, and the last one listed food, calories and the amount of walking time the calories equaled (see image above). Here’s what happened:
People who viewed the menu without nutritional information ordered a meal totaling 1,020 calories, on average, significantly more than the average 826 calories ordered by those who viewed menus that included information about walking-distance. Study participants ordered meals adding up to averages of 927 calories and 916 calories from menus with only calorie information or calorie information plus minutes walking, respectively, although the differences between these two totals were not statistically significant.
The researchers next want to translate this survey into a real world setting to see what kind of results they’d achieve. This is similar to a red, yellow green labeling system that was successfully tested a while back that also helped people eat better.
Scientists breakdown eating into two categories: Homeostatic and Non-Homeostatic. Homeostatic eating means you’re consuming food because your body needs energy. Ideally we’d all eat this way: only when we need to.
Non-Homeostatic eating is when we consume food for reasons other than energy requirements, and it can be a tremendous source of excess calories for many people. In an excellent post called Why Do We Eat? A Neurobiological Perspective, researcher Stephan Guyenet explains it this way:
A common sense example is all we need to begin to understand this. The holiday season is the scenario in which Americans are most likely to overeat and gain fat. That’s not because we’re suddenly hungrier on Thanksgiving– holiday weight gain is driven almost exclusively by non-homeostatic overeating: the presence of readily accessible, delicious, energy-dense, diverse food, and social eating and drinking.
He also points out that drinking soda usually falls into this category:
Another example of non-homeostatic eating is soda consumption. People don’t choose calorie-dense soda over plain water because they’re hungry or thirsty– they choose it because they like soda.
As a weighthacker, my own weight loss became most significant and sustainable when I focused on eliminating my Non-Homeostatic eating. In fact, once I started looking for them, I was shocked at how many Non-Homeostatic eating opportunities I was subjected to on a regular basis. Here are some examples:
- Birthdays and other celebrations at work mean I’m offered free cookies and cake at times when I’m not actually hungry. Being given a delicious sweet combined with the social pressure of eating to celebrate the occasion used to mean I’d take in lots of extra calories I didn’t need. Now I politely decline.
- At restaurants, we’re all routinely offered over-sized meals, encouraging us to eat well beyond homeostatic needs. Now I’ll ask for half my meal to be boxed up to go before it’s brought to me so I’m not tempted to overeat. I’ll also either avoid pasta dishes altogether or ask that they bring me a reduced portion because restaurants love to load you up on cheap pasta to make you feel like you’ve gotten value for your money.
- I’m a regular at Starbucks where I drink unsweetened iced tea, which adds nothing to my caloric intake. But I’m pretty regularly offered free food I don’t need by friendly baristas pushing cookie and pastry samples. Also, because I’m a frequent customer they sometimes offer me broken pastries for free rather than throwing them out. I stopped taking any of these freebies.
- Beyond just the soda example above, almost any sweetened drink is Non-Homeostatic for me. I rarely drank intentionally to consume calories but rather for thirst or taste. Now I make sure I’m either not taking in calories when I drink, or I’m accounting for them in my daily energy needs if I do drink them.
You get the idea. The good thing is, once you know how Non-Homeostatic eating is impacting you, you can start avoiding it. I think most weight hackers will see a remarkable shift in their calorie consumption when they do. I certainly did.