5 billion calories sitting on a wall

5 billion calories sitting on a wall...

Now wouldn't that make the catchiest sing-along tune on a long drive!

Did you know that more than two thirds of us are not doing enough activity to benefit out health? You didn't? Really? You would have to have lived in a cave for the last couple of decades not to know that being fit improves your health, and sitting on your bum all day doesn't. People aren't making unhealthy choices because they don't know what the consequences would be, there are many levels of psychological, habitual, social and environmental influences at work. Does telling people an arm-length list of facts and data on how many millions this, how many minutes that, how much percentage more likely of the other, light a fire of motivation within us all? Unlikely. Yawn.

It reminded me of the headlines I saw when the Department of Health published a strategic report on combating the UK's obesity problem. According to the people with calculators and spreadsheets we are collectively eating a whopping 5 billion calories a day too much. This number reverberated around the newsrooms and in print but as impressive as it sounds it's just a very big number that none of us can get our heads around.

The number is completely impersonal. I do not know quite how many of these 5 billion calories I am personally meant to shoulder. I'm sort of limited to about 2,000 and I'm not ready to hand all of those over either.

For the purpose of this article I decided to try and put 5 billion calories into context. 5 billion calories is about 1,290,000 1kg bags of granulated white sugar. This number of bags piled in a big column would fill to the top one of the lift shafts of the Empire State Building in New York. So now you can visualise 5 billion calories? Actually, I'm still struggling and I certainly can't quite imagine the 40,000 mile long queue of British people holding out a teaspoon and a cup to collect their share. Telling the nation that we eat 5 billion calories a day hasn't made one jot of a difference to our eating habits because it doens't make us feel anything. Instead we should give information that we can work with. 5 billion calories a day is about one chocolate digestive per day per person.

That information might not make you change your eating habits but at least you understand better what the big numbers mean to you. And maybe, maybe, if you have found yourself with the habit of eating a chocolate digestive with your afternoon cuppa, you might pause for a micro-second before you eat it today.

What is my point? If you want to change behaviour, any information you give has to be personalised, individual and easy to conceptualise. Build a story around it too if you can. Staggeringly big-sounding data may look great in print and on powerpoint slides, but it won't make a difference to the nation's waistline.

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