Food labels that connect calorie counts to exercise might change eating habits

Illustration for article titled Food labels that connect calorie counts to exercise might change eating habits
Photo: MilanMarkovic (iStock)

It’s the holidays and, as The Takeout’s resident recipe developer, my diet for the past two months has involved testing and re-testing puddings, cookies, pizza, nachos, pigs in a blanket, and even more cookies that were, thanks to either a stroke of genius or a latent death wish, made with bacon and ham. (To my credit, I did write a vegetable recipe this month, but I fried it.)


I know perfectly well what foods I’m supposed to be eating and what foods it’s best to avoid. I just... don’t. At a certain stage of hunger, the numbers on the back of a box become abstract and meaningless. My brain hasn’t interpreted calories as a unit of energy since high school bio. But if nutrition labels reminded me of this scientific fact on a daily basis, would it perhaps stop me from eating my next frozen burrito? A team of scientists in Britain thinks so.

In a recently published study, researchers from Loughborough University found that food labels showing the correlation between calories and physical activity might help people make better food choices. Physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) food labeling takes existing nutritional information and adds in a description of how much physical activity it would take to actually burn those calories off.

For example, say you look at calorie count on a small bar of chocolate: 230 calories doesn’t seem that terrible, does it? Now imagine that label says the chocolate has 230 calories, and you’ll need to run for over 20 minutes to burn it off. PACE labeling prompts consumers to think about what they eat as a function of what they require as fuel. And based on the results of the study, research suggests that PACE labeling could potentially slice around 200 calories off daily intake.

The new labeling has drawn criticism from eating disorder advocates and body positivity activists alike, who say that viewing food in terms of its ability to be “canceled out” by exercise is an unhealthy approach to nutrition and impacts our psychological relationship to food.

The researchers cautioned that most studies took place in controlled environments rather than real-world settings, so the results shouldn’t be considered scientific gospel just yet. While the PACE labeling appears to be more effective than no nutrition labeling overall, CNN notes, there’s no conclusive data that shows PACE to be more effective than the labels we already have.

Allison Robicelli is a writer, recipe czar, former professional chef, author of four (quite good) books, and The People's Hot Pocket Princess. Tweet me for recipe help: @Robicellis.


These are ultimately a waste of time, I feel. Not because of ‘body positivity’ - I’ll all for doctors feeling empowered to be honest with their patients about the effects and risks of obesity. I think further education is extremely important, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make people feel.

BUT, the fact is that how many calories you burn doing a specific activity is entirely dependent on how much you weigh, how much muscle you have vs fat, etc. There isn’t even really an accurate range you can give.

I am a 120 lb woman (after loosing 80 lbs - yay!). Say I jog a mile. I am going to burn far, FAR fewer calories than a 400 lb man doing the same thing. I’m also not particularly muscular, so I’d still burn calories differently than a 120 lb female bodybuilder. It’s entirely true that anyone can lose weight, but how much, and how quickly you can do it safely, changes depending on the individual.

Hell, I feel like what we have now has already been damaging, to a degree. Nutritional information given is usually based on a 2,000 calorie diet. That might be okay for a man working in an office environment, or a very active tall female, but for your average woman working in an office, that is WAY too much. I’m 5'4 and working a sedentary job - I’d 100% gain a lot of weight eating 2,000 calories a day. I know it’s supposed to be an average, and that people would scream SEXISM!! if you offered a different average for both, but what we have now is still doing a significant portion of the population no favors at all. Why add to an existing problem?

What we need is for packaging to be more clear (no more insisting that one tiny bag of Cheetos are two servings) depicting calorie amounts for realistic (not overly large) portions. And for nutritional education to be taught way more in schools than it currently is. It should also be available for adults, of course, but if kids can be taught better earlier on, they won’t need to form entirely new habits as adults. Or at least they’d be way less likely to.