Calorie-Counting At The Fast Food Shack

In Ohio, many fast food outlets post the calories of the items they offer.  As you roll up to the drive-through lane, you learn that the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder has X calories or the Dairy Queen bacon grillburger has Y calories.

The theory behind posting the calorie counts is to arm the consumer with information that will allow him or her to make good — or at least knowledgeable — decisions when it comes to ordering their food.  Yet you wonder:  do many fast food customers really make productive use of that information to change their eating habits?

burger-and-friesA recent study indicates that the calorie postings really don’t matter that much.  The study occurred in Philadelphia — which requires fast-food outlets to post the calorie, sodium, and fat content of their menu items — and it concluded that only 8 percent of fast food consumers use the information to make healthier eating choices.

Why?  Many of the people surveyed in the study claimed they didn’t see the nutritional information, and others had no context in which to assess the calorie counts, because they didn’t know what a healthy daily calorie intake would be.  Without knowing the context, they’re unaware whether that 760 calories for the cheeseburger of their choice is reasonable.  And, study authors note, the people ordering the food have to be “motivated to eat healthy.”

I think the last point is the only operative one.  I try to avoid fast food at all costs, due to taste, salt content, and calorie count concerns.  When I’ve been forced to order it, because I’m on the road rushing to get somewhere and don’t have the time to eat a normal meal, I try to order the most low-calorie, low-sodium offering that is available and that is readily consumed while driving a car.  The posted notices are perfectly adequate for that purpose, and you don’t need to know the USDA recommended daily calorie intake for your gender and age to know that lower calorie and sodium numbers are better.

The reality, however, is that most people who frequent fast-food restaurants don’t care about the calories.  They don’t go there to seek healthy eating options, they go because it’s quick and convenient and they crave the Big Mac, fries, and chocolate shake.  Survey recipients who say they don’t notice the signs are engaging in self-deception; they’re blaming others for their own choices.  Why bother forcing fast-food restaurants to post larger and more detailed signs, when the real culprits in the bad decisions category are the consumers themselves?

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The Cold Weather Workout

I think there are lots of good reasons to walk in the morning, especially on cold mornings.  But is losing weight one of them?

There is an intuitive logic to the notion that walking — or for that matter, doing much of anything — in the cold will help you lose weight.  Calories are, after all, units of heat.  If you’re out in the shivering winter weather, it stands to reason that your body will need to burn calories just to keep warm.  So you would expect that cold weather would be a plus factor beyond the benefits provided by walking, generally.

IMG_5799Some medical research supports that reasoning — and also indicates that walking in the cold affects the fat cells in the human body.  There are unhealthy white fat cells — presumably the jiggly, blobby glop that Brad Pitt and Ed Norton stole from the liposuction clinic to make soap in Fight Club — and healthy brown fat cells, which help the body burn heat.  If you’re out in colder temperatures regularly, you apparently increase your supply of that good brown fat.  (Incidentally, am I the only person who didn’t know there there was good fat and bad fat?)

Of course, as is always the case in the health area, there are contrary findings.  One recent study questioned whether cold-weather exercise burns more calories and also found that low temperatures increase the amount of an appetite-stimulating hormone, ghrelin, in the blood stream.  So, when you walk in the cold, you’re not only not burning more calories, you may be setting yourself up for a post-walk, diet-killing chow down of epic proportions.

I’ve long since stopped trying to figure out which of the competing health studies should be followed and simply tried to do what seems to work for me.  I like walking in the cold because I like breathing the crisp air, and I feel mentally sharper and more fit when I get to the office.  Whether I am actually sharper and more fit, I’ll leave to the researchers.