Putting Exercise Suggestions on Food Labels Is a Horrible Idea
Researchers think explaining how to burn off calories would combat obesity. Instead, it will kill people like me.
From the number of calories per serving to the amount of saturated fats and yellow dye number 5, nutrition labels are the government’s way of encouraging healthy eating habits and educating consumers. And now, U.K. researchers have published a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health that argues an additional label, detailing the amount of physical activity needed to burn off a product’s calorie count, could “help combat obesity.”
The problem, of course, is that in the real world, detailing how many hours a person needs to spend on the treadmill to burn off a chocolate bar will only encourage unhealthy eating habits. And for the estimated 30 million Americans who struggle with disordered eating — people like me — easy access to that kind of information could end up killing us.
Amanda Daley, the lead researcher of the study that looked at data from 14 other studies to determine the effectiveness of so-called physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) labels, told CNN the proposed labels are a really “simple and straightforward strategy” that could cut calorie consumption by up to 200 calories per person per day. Daley also pointed to the ineffectiveness of the current labeling system in the United Kingdom (one similar to ours in the United States), which lists calorie and nutrient contents. She says it “hasn’t made a huge difference to obesity in the U.K.”
The solution, Daley’s study suggests, is to give consumers even more information by detailing the number of hours and minutes they need to literally sweat their asses off.
As someone who has been in imperfect recovery from anorexia and bulimia for over 10 years; who has made herself throw up while pregnant after her OB-GYN told her she gained 10 pounds; who dragged herself to the gym when she was four weeks postpartum and still bleeding; who knows that the deadliest psychiatric disorder is anorexia and still finds comfort in starvation, I can tell you that PACE labels will not only be ineffective, they will cause significant harm.
There’s little evidence that current nutritional labels significantly impact a person’s eating habits. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that “mandatory menu labeling did not promote healthier food purchasing behavior.” And a 1997 study published in the same journal found that a person’s “label reading” practices directly correlate with their already established dietary practices. In other words, if someone knows they have high blood pressure they’ll pay attention to the sodium content of a product more than someone who does not have high blood pressure. Our attention to food labels is informed by our knowledge of our bodies and what our bodies need, not the label’s mere existence. That would suggest, then, that someone already prone to over-exercising, and counting ‘allowable’ calories based on those that we have already worked off, will be the most likely to read and rely on fitness-suggestion food labels.
So while they might be packaged as necessary information for consumers to make informed decisions when it comes to their eating habits, these PACE labels are nothing more than another way to shame a person into not eating, or at least hitting the gym directly after they eat as an acceptable penance.
But shame doesn’t make people healthier, either. A 2014 study from the University College London found that “discrimination against overweight and obese people does not help them lose weight.” And make no mistake, losing weight or being thin doesn’t mean you’re healthy. A 2011 study, for example, found that “lean people with a specific genetic variant were at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease despite their lower body fat.” Genetics, not size, determined a person’s health. (But as someone who is a size 2 and can only describe her eating habits as unhealthy at best, potentially deadly at worst, feel free to ignore science and simply take my word for it — thin does not equal healthy. If I ran for an extended period of time I would probably pass out. I once had diarrhea every day for a month because I damaged my digestive tract by binging and purging. I am anemic and potassium deficient. Thin. Does. Not. Equal. Healthy.) And exercise does not solve everything.
A food label informing the public that it will take two hours and 30 minutes on an elliptical to “burn off” the calories of a specific product will do little more than make people feel guilty for eating. They will be a physical manifestation of the mental math I do every time I take a bite of, well, anything. They will amplify the voice in my head that says “you shouldn’t eat that” and “you don’t deserve to have food” and “this food is going to make you worthless” that I’ve been trying to ignore for over 10 years. It will make people like me work out for three hours after, instead. Maybe four.
Currently, at least one person dies as a result of disordered eating every 62 minutes in the United States. And while workout suggestions on food labels aim to shrink our bodies, or our pants sizes, I know one thing for sure: They will shrink the number of minutes between disordered eating-related deaths.
While the review of studies in the U.K. was merely suggesting PACE labels as one strategy — meaning they won't necessarily appear in our grocery aisles — I can emphatically say: no thanks. Putting them anywhere is putting people in danger.