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You may have noticed that more restaurant menus lately include the number of calories next to each item. That’s a good trend, but unless you’ve painstakingly tracked your calorie intake and exercise before (and most people haven‘t), than those numbers might not be terribly useful.

A group of researchers in Texas recently published a simple, but fascinating study (click here to see the study report) where they took this concept an important step further. They studied how people’s eating habits changed when they were provided with different types of information. They split their subjects into three groups: the first group were given regular menus with no nutritional information listed; the second group were given menus that included the number of calories for each item; and the third group were given menus that listed the food, the number of calories, and how many minutes of brisk walking would be required to burn off each item.

As you can guess, the results were predictable. The group that was provided with the exercise information made overwhelmingly better eating decisions than the other two groups. In fact, there was no significant difference between the first two groups at all! Only the group provided with the exercise information made better eating choices. After all, you might not order that 600 calorie desert when you find out it’s equivalent to at least a 5 mile run, an hour long swim, or 45 minutes of jumping rope… which is great if you’re training for a triathlon, but most folks don’t budget that kind of training time into their daily routines.

I recently wrote about the fact that weight loss is over 70% nutrition-related. Calories do matter, but – short of becoming a nutritionist – how can folks gain the knowledge needed to make better eating decisions? Here are three quick tips to help you:

START KEEPING TRACK: don’t freak out. I’m not suggesting you have to track every single crumb you eat or step you take for months on end. But even a few days (I’d recommend 2 weeks) of tracking what you eat and how much you burn through exercise can be incredibly eye-opening, even life-changing. Data doesn’t lie. And tracking your calorie intake and usage gives you a gut-wrenchingly honest glimpse into your nutrition and exercise habits. It did for me. In fact, tracking calories and exercise was easily one of the most valuable things I did back when I was first trying to lose weight and get healthy, because the experience equipped me to make much better nutrition decisions. There are many ways you can track this information for yourself; you can utilize one of many free or premium online tools and websites or simply keep a “food diary”. What worked best for me was a free mobile phone app called ‘LoseIt.’

QUALITY COUNTS: this should be common sense, but 500 calories worth of cookies is not going to do your body as good as 500 calories of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, etc. It’s not to say you can’t enjoy “bad food” now and then, but think of calories as currency and spend wisely. Don’t be afraid to “splurge” occasionally, but develop good habits when it comes to what kinds of foods you’re going to spend your calories on each day. If you only have a set number of calories to put in your body each day, than make sure you’re getting the highest quality fuel that you can.

PERMISSION TO FAIL: Anyone who’s ever spoken to me about health and wellness has heard me say “it’s ok to fail occasionally.” And, in fact, it’s inevitable. There are simply going to be days when, despite your best intentions when you rolled out of bed that morning, those best-laid plans flew out the window before the kids even got on the bus. Life happens and we don’t always make the best decisions. As long as it’s not happening all the time, don’t stress about it or beat yourself up. Learn what you can from it, move on, and make a better choice next time. The secret is to progressively make consistently better eating choices over a long period of time. It doesn’t happen in one day or even a week or even a month. And that’s ok. Just keep pressing ahead!

This is the latest installment (for the week of 4/28/2013) of my weekly syndicated column “THE PARENT ATHLETE” – a Health & Wellness Column for Busy Parents – published in over 20 print and online locations each week. If you are interested in carrying my column in your own paper or website, please contact me at

Image by Phillipe.Charles9, Flickr. Used by Permission Under Creative Commons License.

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