We Eat Less When Food Labels Compare Calories to Exercise—Here's Why That's Problematic
Read on to find out why these labels feel anti-health and pro-disordered eating, according to an RD.
The last thing I want to be thinking about when I'm sinking my teeth into a brownie sundae (or a kale salad or handful of nuts, TBH) is how many minutes of jumping rope I would need to burn off the calories I'm eating. When I eat, I want to be enjoying my food, thinking about how it makes me feel and savoring it. I definitely don't need a reminder to jog a mile or walk for 45 minutes—because newsflash, while exercise burns calories, we also need to eat to fuel our bodies.
A new study, published in BMJ, found that adding physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) labels to food helped reduce the amount of calories consumed, compared to other types of labels or no labels. This was a review, meaning that researchers looked at data from 15 other studies and found that having PACE labels led to eating 65 fewer calories per meal.
For now, these labels don't exist in the real world. They've just been used in research studies. But the recommendation is that they may help people make lower-calorie choices.
Here's the thing: 65 calories is not an insignificant number, but it's also just one number. In the greater scheme of things, it's really hard to tell if someone's health would be improving by consuming 65 fewer calories per day. Did they eat fewer fruits and vegetables, or did they drink less soda? Would it mean they chose sugary cereal for a snack over nuts? It feels overly simplistic, and a little backwards, to focus on calories alone. A low-calorie choice does not necessarily mean a healthier choice.
The other problem I have with adding exercise calorie burning comparisons like this, is they're not accurate (FYI, the calorie tallies on the machines at your gym are also not that accurate). A candy bar wrapper doesn't know your metabolism, it can't even make a closer estimate based on your sex, weight and age because it doesn't know those things either. There are plenty of factors that would determine how much time it would take to burn a set number of calories while walking or running and it can be very different person to person.
We also know that an obsession with calories and health can take the joy out of eating and in many cases lead to disordered eating (this is a great read on how weight obsession is actually unhealthy: Losing Weight as a Fat Girl Was the Most Dangerous Thing I've Ever Done). Being in a thinner body, does not mean you're in a healthier body. Yet, we continue to glorify weight loss and thin bodies as a society.
Instead of focusing solely on calories, I would encourage everyone to eat foods they enjoy and tune in to how their bodies feel. Yes, donuts taste good, but if you need energy to power through a morning or meetings or running around after children, you'll probably discover that something with a little more staying power (read: protein, fiber and fat) will give you more lasting energy. That's not to say you should never choose the donut, just that a bowl of oatmeal with fruit and nuts may be a more efficient breakfast choice.
And please, please, please—exercise for the health benefits that go way beyond calories burned or weight loss. Exercise can help you get stronger, sleep better, stress less and improve your heart health—just to name a few. It should not feel like a punishment for eating something that contains calories.
While these PACE labels may have been effective at getting people to eat fewer calories, I'm hoping they don't start showing up on foods or menus. I'd like to eat my food in peace, without comparing each bite to how many steps I need to take to burn it off.