Data are only as useful as our understanding of them. Food labeling represents an opportunity for education while simultaneously illustrating the tremendous challenge of conveying complex ideas in a space only slightly larger than a postage stamp.
The nature of my work is one-on-one counseling, and as such, public health policy is not my area of expertise, but I can still recognize when those charged with such decisions are barking up the wrong tree. Such is the case with Britain’s idea to indicate the exercise load necessary to burn the calories in a given food.
First, remember that proclamations of calorie content are often flawed. Earlier in my career, I created nutrition labels for a university dining service as well as for cooking software. The labels that I produced reflected my best estimates based on other people’s estimates of generalities. Food manufacturers utilize a similar process to create their labels, and laws that allow rounding further cloud the picture. As the game of telephone teaches us, inaccuracies creep in with each step we take further away from the source.
Second, despite what activity trackers and cardio equipment dashboards would have us believe, estimations of caloric expenditure are similarly problematic. Your soda can may inform you that you need to run for 15 minutes to burn off the calories contained within, but this overgeneralization does not take into account your age, size, body composition, running mechanics, exercise intensity, course terrain, or any of the other variables that impact the energy that you as an individual will expend during a specific 15-minute bout of jogging.
Third, even if the data for calories consumed and burned were as accurate as can be, the implied calories-in-vs.-calories-out paradigm is an oversimplification of the complexities affecting weight regulation and overall health. Our eating and physical activity behaviors do matter, of course, but they are mere pieces in a puzzle mainly comprised of factors that are out of our hands.
Last, the presentation of a tradeoff between eating and physical activity reinforces a commonly held and problematic notion that food choices are worthy of punishment and exercise is our penance. As I recently told BuzzFeed and the Daily Meal, the good/bad food dichotomy, so prevalent in our society, links issues of morality, virtue, and guilt to our eating behaviors and is counterproductive. Nutrition and exercise activity have enough variables already without confounding them further with judgment.
A healthy relationship with food and physical activity means uncoupling moralization from such behaviors, not reinforcing the bond.
Earlier this month, Jonah and I were watching NECN when a news story came on that made us both cringe. Apparently, Britain is considering creating new food labels that not only tell the consumer how many calories are in the food, but how long the consumer would need to exercise to “burn off” that food. The proposed label would look like this: next to the calories that are listed for the food, there would be two stick figures of a person walking and running. Underneath those stick figures would be the number of minutes that someone would have to engage in either walking or running to negate the calories they consumed.
I find this idea to be highly problematic for several reasons. Firstly, as Jonah and I have written about before, the idea of “calories in, calories out,” is very much oversimplified. Most people believe that if an individual eats an extra 500 calories per day, that individual will have gained a pound of fat after a week. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Numerous studies have shown that everyone processes calories differently, with some individuals getting more calories from the food they eat and others getting fewer calories from the same amount of food, resulting in some people gaining weight and others not gaining a pound.
One such study looked at identical twins and weight gain. Each pair of twins was fed an extra 1,000 calories per day for 100 days while under close observation (i.e., they were confined to a closed section of a university dorm). What the researchers found was that while the twins in each pair gained (or did not gain) the same amount of weight, there was a huge difference between the sets of twins. For instance, one pair of twins gained more than 29 pounds by the end of the intervention, while another pair only gained about 9 pounds. The conclusion that was reached was that some people are more efficient calorie burners, while others are more efficient at storing extra calories.
Aside from the fact that every body processes calories differently, I also take issue with the idea that one should be concerned with “burning off” what they are eating. In my work with people with eating disorders, there are quite a few individuals who engage in exercise bulimia. This means that these individuals will binge and then will try to compensate for the binge by over-exercising. It is a debilitating disease, and I believe that these labels would exacerbate symptoms for these individuals.
Finally, as I have written about before, I believe that exercise should not simply be viewed as a way to burn calories or to “right our wrongs.” Rather, as the Health at Every Size® principles suggest, physical activity should be a way for us to connect with our bodies by engaging in activities that we enjoy. Instead of torturing oneself in the gym to repent for last night’s cake, how about enjoying a walk outside in the sunshine to improve one’s mental, physical, and emotional health? Instead of calculating how many minutes one would need to log on the treadmill to “undo” a cookie, I think it is much healthier to use exercise as a way to feel more alive in our bodies rather than as a weight control tool.