FREAK Shots: Nudging the Calorie Counters

We blogged about musical stairs in Stockholm that try to encourage stair-climbing rather than escalator-riding. One of the issues with this “nudge,” as Dubner wrote, is that it’s probably more fun for people to descend them than to ascend.

These stairs in Lisbon, however, address that problem by appealing to the calorie conscious.

A similar nudge at an Israeli park encourages people to walk the long distance from the parking lot to a cave. As Flickr user goldberg explains, a series of signs along the route tell you how many calories you’ve burned.

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: goldberg

But since the people most influenced by calorie counts may be the least likely to go looking for cheese fries, what kind of effect does this kind of sign have?

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: kevharb

Or this one, at Coney Island?

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: bluespf42

Flickr user bluespf45, who took the Coney Island photo, puts it succinctly: “I really didn’t want to know.”

(Send your FREAK-worthy photos here.)


Perhaps the greatest part of the Israeli sign is that it reminds the reader that they will burn the equivalent of an order of falaffel.


i don't understand how that works, so many factors weight, height, muscle mass, exertion for the same 'work' at a heart rate level all factor into calorie consumption- a 700 calorie cheeseburger is that no matter who eats it- but the walk to a cave or a flight of stairs etc is dependent on too many variable to make that make sense to put on a sign.


About the calorie-marked stairs: Am I the only one who's usually discouraged by how few calories exercise actually burns? Even though I usually take the stairs for exercise, seeing those tiny numbers might just make me think it basically makes no difference, and take the escalator.

Paul L.

You should look for a brazilian book called "Brasil das Placas", in which the autor shows a lot of pictures of signs that can be found in the country side. Real funny. All of them spelled wrong and most of them with great ideas.


Funny, I was just in a cafe today and first time ever asked how many calories were in their banana bread. They looked at me like I was nuts. And they were probably right, but, still, it would have been nice to know. If it turned out to be like those Nathan's cheese fries, I would have limited myself to coffee.

(1364 calories? Are they kidding? That's 50% of a normal-to-large man's daily calorie intake.)

Perhaps the nudge will only work if people become aware of where the baseline is. If you don't know what a normal calorie maintenance intake is, the numbers mean little.


If anything, there should be signs reminding people of the 'fist rule', which is:

1 fist-size portion: a snack
2 fist-size portion: a proper meal

3 meals, 2 snacks at set times, 4 hours apart.

Stick to those rules and you not only will not put on weight ever, but also won't end up feeling bloated since you're not walking about with buckets full of fermenting food inside your guts.

Calorie counting just drives people crazy, it's the amount you eat, not what you eat that is the problem.


The truth is that it is much easier to eat a whole lot of calories than it is to burn it off. One large fry and a hot dog at NAthan's (based on the photos above) will run you about 1300 calories and you can consume that in about ten minutes. Will take you about 200 minutes of walking at 4.5 MPH (I used an online calorie burn calculator).


I take the stairs at work (6 levels), most of the time I just go down which DOES burn calories, but two to three times a week I go up, it takes 5 minutes. I read, actually here in the NYT, that taking the stairs 3 levels once a day will keep of the weight people tend to put on due to age.

Tom from Wisconsin

All this calorie counter nonsense ignores the fact those tables are a fantasy. Any cookbook will tell you a tablespoon of sugar is worth 40 calories. What they don't tell you is that the specific value for you changes with the state of you body.

When there is plenty of calories to maintain set point, the body goes into luxous consumption and throws away extra calories, at least partly by not absorbing all of them. Likewise, when the body is in serious need, it makes more use of each calorie ingested. That's why its easier to put weight back on than take it off with a diet. Its why people who have been through multiple diets find it so hard to lose again (the body has received training which triggers the famine response - and lets not forget we are the product of a long line of ancestors who were able to withstand famine). Its why some people can gain 10 pounds a week on a 1000 calorie a day diet.

About 70% of what you eat on a normal diet at a steady weight goes into metabolism. That gives your body a lot of leeway in deciding how to treat calories that you eat. If your body could not make such adjustments, imagine this: Suppose your weight is steady, your lifestyle doesn't change, and your diet is constant. Now add one bran muffin (100 calories) a day. You would gain 10 pounds a year. So 10 years from now, you wouldn't weigh 150, you would be 250. At twenty years you would be 350 pounds, etc. Intuitively, you have to know this isn't reality.

Yes, if you eat way too much, its likely to be stored as fat, especially if you are a typical American and lead a largely sedentary lifestyle. But there are also people who struggle to gain weight and eat huge amounts without doing so. This simplistic analysis of both weight and calories ignores the key issues - Quality of foods (nutritional values) and Activity of the eater. We need to focus on those factors instead of the all-too-easy calorie counting.



I agree with #3. The calorie count on the stairs convinces me that it's not worth the bother.


Tom from Wisconsin said it better than I could.


Those stairs are freaking awesome. My coworker goes up 20-30 flights of stairs a day. She's going to love that picture. Thanks!

Kathleen Lisson

If restaurants are committed to the goal of empowering their customers to make healthful food choices, the next step would be to post USDA information on the total daily calorie and fat allowance for both adults and children. Just posting calories doesn't help if I don't know how many calories to budget for each meal. Even if Americans don't care about our own weight, we care about the food we give our children, right?


By that picture, and the fact that there's 3 500 calories in a pound, it takes 875 000 steps to burn a pound.

Assuming twenty steps per story, walking five stories up and five stories down to work every morning is 200 steps. That's 4 375 work days to burn a pound from taking the stairs.

Working five days a week with no vacation is 260 workdays per year, so you'll have burned a pound from stairwalking after 16 years.

It's really a myth that small differences in exercise help you lose weight. It's almost entirely a matter of diet. If you exercise for an hour or more every single day, it'll have a real influence, but will still pale in comparison to the influence of diet. We're told that small amount of exercise will help us lose weight as a way to trick us into exercising because it's good for our health regardless, but when it comes to weight, it's diet, diet, diet.


In reply to Derick:

I would love to see where you got your information from Derick. I have heard it only takes 10 000 steps to burn a pound and that is on flat ground. Can you please show me your source where it says it takes 875 000 steps to burn a pound? I understand what you are saying but I think your numbers are way over exaggerated. You are also forgetting walking up stairs is harder than walking down stairs and a lot harder than walking on flat ground therefore burning more calories.

Also, one small change may not make a big difference but it's all the small changes that add up. Walking up stairs every day may not burn a lot of calories directly but it will over time make your heart stronger which will increase your metabolism which will help you lose weight.


In the US we drop the prefix "kilo" when discussing calories. The unit that appears on a U.S. food label as "calories", is marked "kCal" on EU labels -- and usually is in smaller print below the official SI unit of "kJ" (kiloJoules).

This still doesn't explain why the steps are marked as thousandths of a calorie -- perhaps the person who planned the marks misunderstood the relationship between the gram-calorie, the kilogram calorie, and the measurement of energy in food?


Matt, I know you responded a while ago, but I got it from that picture. That picture has each step 0.004 calories extra burned. I got the 3 500 from various people that don't know eachother who have mentioned it, including my doctor. If I am doing my math correctly, 3 500 / 0.004 = 875 000.

Granted that picture may be completely wrong.

Tom S.

Derick, by your math (and my math), it would take the average person 271 miles of walking to burn a pound, assuming 1/2 meter per step (for simplicity sake) and converted to miles. I burn about 1500 calories on a 13.1 mile run, for comparison's sake. Personally, I don't feel like walking from Albany to Buffalo in the same of weight loss.


Yes, diet is more important for weight loss and staying fit, but exercise cannot be summed up solely by looking at calories burned.

Exercise's true value lies in the muscle that is built up. Muscle mass burns more calories than fat mass. A 200 pound man who is 10% body fat requires many more calories than a 200 pound man with 25% body fat. This difference gives the man with 10% body fat much more leeway in his diet and makes it easier for him to lose weight and more difficult for him to gain weight.

Taking the steps every day, running 13.1 miles or lifting weights all contribute to your muscle mass.


the numbers on first picture must be wrong - 1 step equals to 0.004 calorie?? that would mean that you have to take 250 steps to burn only 1 calorie - that's a joke. `