Nutrition labels can be confusing (we even put together a guide to make things easier). That’s why health policy advocates in the U.K. suggest adding icons that show how long a person needs to run, walk, bike, or swim to burn off the calories. (A chocolate bar, for example, would take 22 minutes to run off and 42 minutes to walk off.)
Activity-equivalent calorie labeling is intended to curb the U.K.’s obesity problem, remind people of the importance of exercise, and make nutritional information simpler. But this suggested change could open up a dangerous door, says nutritionist Tara Coleman.
“This goes along with the idea that you must punish yourself if you do indulge or the idea that whoever eats the least wins,” Coleman says. Not to mention, it’s crazy to suggest you have to work off every calorie you consume. Your body still needs plenty of energy (a.k.a. calories) to keep your heart beating, your stomach digesting, and your lungs breathing.
Some primary care physicians, like Bola Oyeyipo, M.D., support the initiative. She sees the labels as a way to help people make healthier decisions, but she isn’t sure they’ll actually work, since many people view exercise as a chore. In other words, some may simply avoid foods with the exercise label.
While in theory this could lower the amount of processed food we eat, it greatly oversimplifies the notion of what’s healthy. “Sure, knowing the amount of exercise time needed to work off a cookie is good to know, but will it actually modify behavior?” says Dan Park, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at the Medical University of South Carolina. “One cookie may require 10 minutes to burn off and a piece of fruit could require the same, but we all know that fruit contains more nutrients.”
This initiative is especially dangerous for people who struggle with or are at risk for developing eating disorders, says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association.
“Instead of thinking about exercise as movement that gives you strength and energy, it focuses purely on burning calories, which is a major symptom of eating disorders,” Mysko says. “We need to start encouraging all kids, regardless of their size, to learn about food and exercise in a framework that is more about strength and what makes you feel good.”
These labels are only in the idea phase (and in the U.K.), but they bring up an important conversation. Diet and exercise are just two pieces of the bigger puzzle of how we think about our health.