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If you're looking to make healthy choices when eating out, there will be more transparency from chain restaurants in the near future. The Food and Drug Administration is finalizing rules requiring chains with 20 or more locations to provide calorie information on menus. But in order to get people to pay attention, a new study finds you might also have to help customers make sense of those counts. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When three guys in their 20s grab a quick lunch at Taco Bell, you can bet that their appetites are big and their budgets small.
CASEY SCALL: I'm having a deal number four. It's a beefy five-layer burrito.
AUBREY: That's Casey Scall (ph) as he holds up his 20 ounce Baja Blast soda, he says he doesn't know how many calories he's eating.
SCALL: No, I have no idea. I just get it and it tastes great. And it's cheap, so I go for it.
AUBREY: And Scow's friend, Eric Sudar (ph), says at three bucks for a whole meal, including the big drink, he probably would not skip the soda, even if there were a sign telling him how many calories it had.
ERIC SUDAR: I love it. I love drinking soda. I probably drink two or three sodas a day.
AUBREY: That's a lot of calories.
SARA BLEICH: The average American has no idea how many calories are in the foods that they consume.
AUBREY: That's researcher Sara Bleich of Johns Hopkins University. She's well aware of the challenges of getting Americans, particularly teenagers and young adults, to think differently.
BLEICH: Let's say they do know that they should take in about 2000 calories. And they're making a decision at Taco Bell, like the guys we saw last night idea and a taco has 500 calories. To do the mental math to say what percent of 500 is 2000 is not something that Americans are good at.
AUBREY: Not because they can't, they just don't bother. So what would motivate them to pay attention? Well, Bleich had a theory. If restaurants listed not only calorie counts but also told customers how many miles of walking or minutes of running it would take to burn off what they ate, maybe this would work. In order to test the theory, Bleich and her colleagues did an experiment. They posted signs in corner stores in Baltimore that told teenagers it would take, for instance, five miles of walking or 50 minutes of running to burn off a 250 calorie soda.
BLEICH: So we simply watched. We sat in these stores for hours upon hours and hours and we just watched what they were doing.
AUBREY: What they found is that when teenagers noticed the signs, many made different choices. Some opted for smaller drinks, while others chose lower calorie options.
BLEICH: So we found that very encouraging.
AUBREY: Bleich says she thinks posting miles of walking could be more effective than just posting calories alone.
BLEICH: Because if we're going to put the information in restaurants, there's got to be a better way to do it. And what this study suggests is that miles of walking may be the more persuasive way.
AUBREY: So back to the guys at Taco Bell. Would the thought of all that running deter them from buying large sodas? Casey Scall says maybe.
SCALL: It would definitely make me hesitate, for one.
AUBREY: And, researchers say, well, that's a start. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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