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Exercise Labels on Food Is NOT a step towards Better Health

Imagine that you’re walking down the cereal aisle at the grocery store. You scan the shelves and find your favorite cereal on the shelf. As you place it into your shopping cart you notice a new label on the back. The label is telling you how much exercise you’d need to do to ‘burn off’ the energy provided in one serving of cereal. Your mind immediately travels down a rabbit hole (no offense Trix Rabbit) of overthinking and uncertainty about your weekly cereal purchase.

This vision may soon become a reality – exercise equivalent labels on food may be coming to your aisle of the grocery store soon, and if it does, we implore you to look the other way.

A recent article in The Telegraph, UK reported that “…new evidence has shown that labeling food with how much exercise would be needed to burn it off, rather than how many calories it contains, is a key towards encouraging healthy lifestyles.” (find the original article here). Labeling food with exercise ‘equivalents’ is called PACE labeling (Physical Activity Calorie Equivalent or Expenditure). For example, a can of Coca Cola would have a label stating that its contents are equivalent to 22 mins of running.

PACE labels suggest that all ingested calories should be “burned off” by physical activity. This is confusing and simply untrue -- Here’s why: calorie estimates of foods and estimates of energy used to exercise tend to be inaccurate by a wide margin. But more importantly, energy expenditure is only a relatively small percentage of what we need food for. That is, the largest quotient of daily energy needs for food is BMR (basal metabolic rate). BMR is the energy we burn at rest and utilizes most of the calories we ingest each day. BMR uses energy for things like showering, running errands, and doing homework. What’s more, we also use food to fuel the Thermic Effect of Food (food keeps us from freezing to death). Thus, running to “burn off” a can of Coca Cola doesn’t address how we used the energy in the soda in the first place.

The Telegraph article goes on to quote Professor Amanda Daley from Loughborourgh University, “It is a simple strategy that could be easily included on food/drinks packaging by manufacturers, on shelving price labels in supermarkets, and/or in menus in restaurants/fast-food outlets.It is not a simple strategy at all. Energy expenditure is not simple and metabolism is not simple. If it was, we’ would have a weight loss drug that works safely and long-term.

We need to stop looking for “strategies”, short-cuts, tricks, and other manipulations that are driven by weight stigmatizing diet culture.

By contrast, intuitive eating allows people to follow their own innate needs because we are unique, complex individuals. A plethora, actually, a myriad of data has identified that diets don’t ‘work’ for improving health outcomes in the long-term.

Exercise equivalent labels on food is a ‘public health’ extension of diet culture, food shaming, and weight stigma.

It’s nearly impossible to eat intuitively when we have shaming public health messages screaming at us from every angle. Will it take the entire world to develop disordered eating to notice the harmful effects of stigmatizing food and movement? If we dismiss the shaming messages being bombarded at us by diet culture, we might just find this wonderful balance of food nurturance and gentle, regular movement.

Exercise labels on food are a terrible idea.

We need to get out of diet culture’s way and dismiss this crazy noise.

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