5 Billion Calories



The Department of Health published a strategic report in 2011 on combating the UK's obesity problem. According to the people with calculators and spreadsheets British adults are collectively eating a whopping 5 billion calories a day too much. This number reverberated around the newsrooms and in print - “5 Billion Calories” was the bold headline on the front pages of several of the UK’s national papers, but as impressive as it sounds it was just a very big number that none of us could really get our heads around.

How much is 5 billion calories? What does 5 billion calories actually look like?

I decided to to put this number into context so you can visualise it. We all know what the Empire State Building in New York City looks like. Even if we’ve not been there personally, we’ve seen it on the TV, in movies and magazines. It’s 86 floors high, widest at the bottom and narrows in stages going up.

5 billion calories is about 1,290,000 x 1kg bags of granulated white sugar. If we removed all the internal walls and furniture (and people of course) from the Empire State Building, and filled it up with 1,290,000 bags of sugar, how high up the 86 floors do you think 5 billion calories worth of sugar would go? (The answer is at the bottom of the page.)

However, even knowing what it would look like as a big pile of sugar still doesn’t really bring home what it means for us in the context of our lives because the number is completely impersonal. How much are each of us individually expected to contribute to fixing the 5 billion calorie problem? What does it mean at a personal level? Telling the nation that we eat 5 billion calories a day too much hasn’t made (and won’t make) one bit of difference to our eating habits because it doesn't make us feel anything.

5 billion calories a day translated to an individual level is about one chocolate digestive biscuit per day per person. It's still an over-simplification but it is at least the type of information we can work with. You may not change your eating habits but at least you’ll understand better what the number means to you. And maybe, (maybe) if you have found yourself with the habit of eating a chocolate digestive with your afternoon cuppa each day, you might pause for a micro-second before you eat today’s.

If you want to change behaviour, any information you give has to be as personalised, relevant and easy to conceptualise as possible. 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 what an individual does next.

The answer to the question above is 0 floors (see below). The sugar would only go 3m high. Yep it’s a rubbish visual and will win you no new admirers if you share it as a fact at your next party. But I bet you were still curious.