Whether you’ve ever stopped and really looked at a food label before, you probably come across them multiple times per day. They’re on every package and container we buy. They’re fairly easy to read once you get the hang of it, and that’s on purpose. Manufacturers aren’t hiding anything from you.
Over in the UK, researchers are proposing adding something new to food labels: exercise equivalents.
These “equivalents” would appear in the form of small pictures on the packaging, depicting a stick figure either running, biking or swimming. With those pictures, there would be a number indicating how many minutes of each activity you would have to engage in to “work off” the calories from whichever food you were about to eat.
Is this necessary? Will this solve the obesity epidemic? Or does the proposal miss the point entirely?
British researchers think exercise equivalents are a good idea
Currently, food labels contain information such as calories, sugar, sodium, ingredient lists and more. This information is written out and uses numbers and percentages to communicate to consumers how much of each type of nutrient is in the food they are about to eat, relative to its serving size.
The benefit of adding exercise equivalent symbols to food labels is that many of us tend to think better in pictures. If we reach for that frozen pizza, one of the most heavily processed foods you can buy, by the way, and see a picture of a stick figure running with a number over its head telling us how long it might take to burn off the calories from that pizza, we just might put it back. The keyword here: might.
The United States isn’t the only country struggling with overweight, obesity and associated diseases like diabetes. European authorities propose that adding these equivalents would encourage people to start exercising through the use of easy-to-interpret symbols on food packaging.
This is only a speculation, of course. However, it doesn’t take into consideration that lack of exercise is only one piece of the healthier lifestyle, cauliflower-crust pie. Calories in, calories out. That’s all that matters, right? Not quite.
The problem? Exercise won’t solve the underlying issues
Adding exercise equivalents to food labels has the potential to remind consumers that as they take in more calories, they need to burn off calories as well. This is an okay starting point. However, not only are people not guaranteed to pay attention to the equivalents, but they also won’t solve the underlying problem: the foods we are eating.
Recent research shows us that over half of the calories Americans consume come from “ultra-processed” foods. These foods contain high levels of sodium and a large amount of added sugars, fats and oils. It doesn’t matter how many calories we burn off after eating an entire pizza. All that salt, sugar and fat doesn’t just disappear when we go for a quick jog.
It’s also essential to remember that there are more than three types of exercise. Something as simple as walking up and down stairs is better than no exercise at all. These labels give the false impression that it’s either all or nothing in terms of an effective workout, and that doesn’t really solve anything, either.
While the idea itself isn’t atrocious, it’s much more important that we focus on healthy eating, and acknowledge that burning calories is only one part of the bigger picture.