Warning signs were posted all over Baltimore, Md., in the hopes of making people change their behavior about the amount of soda they drink. A study conducted by John Hopkins University wanted to find out about the amount of sugary drinks people consume. For weeks, patrons of some neighborhood stores become unwitting participants in a soda experiment.
Four signs were strategically placed in stores selling soda, juices and other sugary drinks. Instead of traditional nutritional labels, the signs warned people about the amount of exercise that would be needed to burn off the calories contained in one soda. One sign warned that a 20-ounce soda packed a whopping 250 calories. Another sign emphasized the 16 teaspoons of sugar contained in the drink. Two others reminded shoppers it would take 50 minutes of running or five miles of walking. A Today Show fitness expert took things a step further, calculating the exercise needed if someone drank two big sodas. It would take 600 push-ups or an hour of jumping jacks to burn off 500 calories.
The findings were published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health. Sarah Bleich, the researcher at the helm of the study, said Americans are oblivious to the calories they consume because most people only glance at labels. She says calorie labels need to be simplified. She also believes the people who consume the most sugary drinks and junk foods are teens, and those with the least amount of education and health literacy. Before the signs were posted, 98 percent of the drinks bought were sugary ones.
The experiment tested to see if simplistic signs would encourage people, especially teens, to make different choices. It worked. The signs led consumers to buy less soda and juice or buy smaller sizes. The study adds that the behavior continued, with people changing to lower calorie soda, and sugary drinks even after the signs were removed.
The research took place in lower income, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Bleich admits she originally thought people in those communities had so many other disadvantages, they would not focus on caloric intake. In the end, she was surprised to find out they did. Getting teens to drink something else besides soda was the biggest surprise.
The findings could be used to help fight obesity. Public health officials say the study could demonstrate how these easy to install signs could help promote weight loss efforts. But, critics say the assumption that people do not understand counting calories is somewhat cynical. They also say the results are not typical for everyone. Different ages, body types and fitness should be taken into consideration. All of these factors causes people to burn calories differently.
While promising, the changed behavior could be a sign people would rather give up soda than exercise more. Bleich says being faced with all that exercise probably resonates with adults to make better choices because they are a little more health conscious. Still, there is a growing movement to keep nutrition top of mind. One proposal is a color coding system where healthy foods would be labeled green, junk foods, red and everything else yellow. There has also been some talk about incorporating a thumbs-up, thumbs-down system.
By Angela Jones
Photo by Taylor Bennett – Flickr License