Health · Personally

Do We Need New Food Labels?

*TRIGGER WARNING* – if you are sensitive to topics involving EDs or restrictive dieting, please be wary of this piece. 

This week I read an article that suggested that introducing new food labels which told the consumer how much exercise they would need to do in order to burn off that particular item of food could help ‘tackle obesity’.

This new strategy, called physical activity calorie equivalent or expenditure (pace) labelling, is said to help people shave around 200 calories off their daily intake, as the amount of minutes or miles in exercise required to burn off that particular product will be clearly labelled, making people more aware of just exactly how much energy is in their food, as knowing the amount of calories, fat, protein and carbs etc as is already available on labels doesn’t seem to be enough.

Researchers believe that Pace Labelling is required as people do not seem to know what the numbers of calories and fat on their existing labels mean in terms of energy expenditure, and thus continue to eat more calories than they should, doing nothing to reduce the current obesity epidemic that has its grip around the country’s population. In 2017, 29% of people aged 16 or above in Scotland were overweight or obese, with a further 36% being overweight. Women were slightly more likely than men to be obese
(33% and 30% respectively), but men were more likely than women to be overweight (33% of women and 40% of men).* And these statistics don’t even cover the obesity rates of children in the country. If adults are misinformed and ignorant to what damage the foods they eat can cause them, there is no way they are going to be able to pass down good and healthy habits to their children.

My problem is this:

Instead of changing the way we label foods entirely (the traffic light system currently in place was only introduced in 2013, mind you) in order to simplify things even further, why don’t we take the time to educate people and show them the relationship between foodstuffs, calorie intake and energy expenditure? Rather than telling them exactly how many hours to spend pounding away on a treadmill in order to burn off the Big Mac they had at McDonald’s, why don’t we encourage people to eat intuitively and bring about the normalisation of healthy eating habits? Though the independent study on Pace Labelling found that in general people were able to consume less calories over a day, I can’t help but think that people just saw how much exercise they would ‘have’ to do, and simply were scared off the food or could not be bothered to put into the exercise required.

From this, even more problems arise. Pace Labelling will simply end up adding to the current demonisation of ‘bad’ foods, and, for people who are already suffering from or are beginning to show signs of eating disorders, this extra emphasis on how much time and exercise needed to burn of certain foods won’t just make it easier for these people to restrict themselves and force themselves to do even more exercise, but it will also make becoming obsessed over numbers and calories an even bigger issue. Say if a person suffering from an ED eats a food that they are told will take a 30 minute jog to burn off, and that day they happen to not be able to get to the gym? They’re not going to be able to shrug it off and know that it’s not imperative to go to the gym every day, and that having something that is particularly high in calories once isn’t going to do them damage. They are most likely going to feel guilty, and their ED consumed brain is not going to let them forget the fact that they ate something ‘bad’.

As someone who became obsessive and consumed by the numbers on my calorie tracker and on the treadmill during gym sessions, there are already things that I have to avoid doing in my day-to-day life in order to stop anxiety attacks from happening or a relapse in my ED. I actively avoid eating in places like Wetherspoons and Greggs, as they show the number of calories in their meals and I blanch at the numbers on the menu, and if I can help it, I plan my running sessions around how long I run, rather than try to hit a calorie burning goal. When eating in general, I’ve been trying to listen to my body, and eat what I feel like I want, and have learned to simply stop eating m meal when I am full, rather than try to finish my portion no matter what. Pace Labelling, I can tell you honestly, would have ruined my life more than my ED did. The amount of time I was spending working out in a day was already too high – and having pace labelling would have taken my already obsessive behaviour to another level.

Taking a step away from eating disorders, a young person or someone uneducated in the way calories and energy expenditure work may look at their food for the day and calculate the amount of exercise they ‘should’ do at face value. So, instead of eating around 2300 calories in a day and going for a jog and burning 300 to get their net calories to 2000 – which is a healthy amount for a woman – they may think that they need to burn off all the food that they have eaten that day, and I don’t know about you, but a 2000 calorie workout sounds neither healthy nor fun.

Slapping extra numbers and guidelines to how much exercise one needs to do in order to burn off a certain meal is not helpful. It will not only exacerbate the existing mental and physical health of those suffering from EDs, but I can’t imagine it being a very useful way to inform young people on how calories work in relation to their own health and well being. Food shouldn’t be associated only with workouts and gym sessions. People need to be informed on how the body expends energy throughout the day, and how this balances out with what we eat.  Instead of simply directing them in the way of the gym, wouldn’t it be better to educate in fostering daily habits and lifestyle choices that they can implement in the long run?

* https://www2.gov.scot/Topics/Statistics/Browse/Health/scottish-health-survey

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2 thoughts on “Do We Need New Food Labels?

  1. The idea that we need to “burn off” calories with exercise totally overlooks the fact that we need energy to stay alive, and that 250 Calories will be “burned off” simply by being alive for around 2 hours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. People who don’t know this and don’t know how much energy a body needs in a day relative to how much one eats won’t be able to understand that not everything they put in their bodies needs to be ‘burned off’ by going to the gym.

      Liked by 1 person

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