Imagine heading to the vending machine for an afternoon snack and seeing that your favorite bag of chips, in addition to calorie count, now has a label on the front telling you it’d take 19 minutes of running, 23 minutes of biking, and 13 minutes of swimming to burn off. Would you still buy it?
That moment of pause, of thinking is it worth it? is what the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health is hoping to enforce by advocating for adding exercise labels to packaged food. In a new viewpoint published in the BMJ, RSPH chief executive Shirley Cramer argues that activity labeling would prompt people to be more mindful of what they eat and encourage people to be more physically active.
“We want to think of ways of making it easier for people to make a healthier choice, or at least to understand the choice they’re making,” Cramer writes.”By putting it together with physical activity, you’re giving people a positive option as well. People prefer that to being told not to eat something.” This proposal follows a report published this week from the World Health Organization concluding that diabetes has doubled globally since 1980 and 60% of the U.S. population is now overweight or obese.
While polling the public, the RSPH found that more than half (53%) said activity equivalent calorie labels on food would encourage them to choose healthier food, eat smaller portions, or do more exercise. While there was no follow up with subjects to see if behavior changed, the report emphasizes that its results “show promising intentions.”
There’s one issue with this proposal: it’s pretty shame-y. Yes, it can influence someone to do more physical activity, but it can also inevitably attach feelings of punishment to exercise, and guilt to food (and, possibly, trigger eating disorders). Additionally, it promotes calorie-centric thinking that you can “cancel out” eating junk like candy and chips by simply exercising, when it’d be more effective to consider a more holistic approach to food–nutritional value. 300 calories of vegetables and 300 calories of Cheetos are not the same. On top of that, the activity labels as they are have a one-size-fits-all approach to calories that can’t possibly take into account how individual consumers’ weight, fitness levels, and metabolisms factor in.
As this is only a proposal, nothing has actually been put in motion. If it were to become a real thing, however, perhaps it’d make sense to put the exercise labels alongside nutritional value charts as opposed to images on the front–that way, the folks who really care to know can access that information.