Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and teenage son are both overweight. I’ve been trying to get them to cut back on the junk they eat, but telling them about calories and fat doesn’t have any effect. Is there some other way to get through to them?

A: My youngest daughter and I recently stopped into an IHOP. We hadn’t been there for a while so I was surprised to see that each menu item included calories and fat grams. The numbers were so huge—in some cases a single dish included several weeks’ worth of saturated fats—that I immediately lost my appetite and had nothing but ice water (my daughter, however, thoroughly enjoyed her pancakes and scrambled eggs). On the way out, I asked the manager whether business had taken a hit since putting calories and fat information on the menu. Not in the slightest.

I started looking into this and discovered the problem:  Most people don’t pay attention to calories and fat numbers because they simply have no idea how much of either they’re supposed to be getting every day—or how much is too much. No wonder you can’t turn on the TV or read a newspaper without hearing about the epidemic of obesity.

Back to your question. Yes, there are some ways to present basic calories and fat (and other important nutritional information) in a way that will actually get your husband and son to eat less. Here’s how it works.

A team of researchers led by Sunaina Dowray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, took a group of more than 800 people and randomly gave them one of four nearly identical menus. One group got a menu that had no nutritional information at all. One got the same menu plus calorie data, one got a menu with calories plus a listing of how many minutes the customer would have to walk to burn off those calories, and the last got the menu with calories and how many miles of walking it would take to burn off the calories. The differences between the four groups were huge.

The menu-only group ordered an average of 1,020 calories (roughly half a day’s worth of calories for most people). The menu+calories group ordered an average of 927 calories, the menu+calories+minutes-of-exercise group ordered 916 calories, and the menu+calories+miles-of-walking group ordered only 826 calories.

Another team of researchers took a slightly different approach when looking at how to get teenagers to drink fewer sugary soft drinks. They posted one of three signs next to beverage coolers in corner stores in Baltimore: “Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 250 calories?” “Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 10% of your daily calories?” and “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?”

The results were clear: Kids who saw only the 250-calorie sign were just as likely to buy drinks as those who didn’t see any warnings at all. Those who saw the percentage-of-daily-calories message were 40% less likely to buy sugared drinks, and those who saw the 50-minutes-of-running message were 50% less likely. In most cases, the kids who didn’t buy the sugared drinks bought water instead.

Just so you know, depending on their age and how active they are, teen boys and adult men should get between 1,800-3,200 calories per day; teen girls and adult women need 1,600-2,400 per day.

Sunaina Dowray’s article was published in the journal Appetite. You can see an abstract here.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services produced an excellent publication that has detailed calories and fat and nutritional and diet information. You can download it here.

To get an idea of the connection between your favorite foods and what you’d have to do to burn off the associated calories, check out this clever infographic from Women’s Health magazine.
calories and what it takes to burn them off