cycling · sports nutrition

How much biking does that breakfast get you? Thinking about food as fuel


The menu above appeared in my Facebook newsfeed this week–lots of cyclist friends, what can I say?–and it made me smile. I recognized myself and my riding in the choices. On Saturdays when I do a short, slow beginners’ ride with friends I don’t worry too much about breakfast. I can grab a banana and go. Latte and scone after. But for events like the MEC Century or the Halton Epic Tour, it;s very different. Why? Speed and distance. For long, hard rides I carefully make sure I eat a lot and I pack food for the road as well. See Why riding fast and long requires lots of food.

But I confess that while “food as fuel” speaks to me, I’ve been leery about associating food choices with exercise, outside of that context.

It seemed too close, to me, of thinking of exercise as punishment for eating. See Thinking beyond exercise as punishment and food as fuel.

I wrote, “I remember when I started to think about food as fuel instead. Cycling certainly requires that perspective. You can’t go for long, fast bike rides without planning what you’ll eat and when. My friend David sets an alarm to remind himself to eat on the bike.

Let’s rewrite the text on the image below. How about instead you think, “French fries fuel a lot of burpees! ” While I don’t generally eat french fries, I do find myself thinking that I need to eat before I work out. That’s totally different than thinking I need to work out because I ate. It’s what happens when you start thinking in terms of sports nutrition. “What would best fuel my workout?” is a different question than “What do I have to do to burn off those french fries?”

But a lively discussion on our Facebook page past week got me rethinking the whole thing.

A friend and a diabetes researcher pointed out that labeling with food with exercise, rather than calories, was much more effective. Unlike the calorie labeling, exercise actually affected peoples’ choices. The average person found much more it to know that a can of Coke equals a 50 min jog, than to know how many calories it contained.

If I can view the menu above in neutral terms–that’s what kind of ride this breakfast fuels–maybe non-riders can do the same.

What do you think of this style of food labeling?

Further reading:

Tread Lightly: Labels That Translate Calories into Walking Distance Could Induce People to Eat Less

Public awareness posters used by the campaign showed the number of miles a person would have to walk to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce soda, and new research suggests that physical activity–based conversions such as these can actually persuade people to make healthier choices.

Choosing what to eat or drink based on calorie numbers alone is challenging for some restaurant-goers, according to Anthony Viera at the University of North Carolina (U.N.C.) at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “It requires a computation that many people might not find easy to make at the point of decision,” he says. So Viera and his colleagues conducted an online survey of 802 individuals randomly presented with one of four hypothetical menus. One of the menus provided only calorie counts, another supplemented this with information about the number of minutes one would need to walk to burn those calories whereas the third menu showed calorie numbers plus the distance necessary to walk them off. The fourth menu had no nutritional data whatsoever. All of the physical activity labeling for walking was based on the energy expenditure of a 160-pound adult walking at a rate of 30 minutes per mile—so a “regular burger” was, for example, listed as containing 250 calories, the equivalent amount burned in 2.6 miles, or 78 minutes of walking.

A Doughnut Will Cost You Two Miles

Unless you’re a dedicated dieter, you probably pay little mind to your calorie consumption. But what if instead of calories your favorite foods were labeled in terms of physical activity? Would this have more of an influence on your eating habits?

That’s the question behind a $2.3 million study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

 The Exercise Cost of Soda and Juice

What if nutrition labels told people exactly what calories meant, in practical terms? A bottle of Coke could dole out specific exercise requirements. The calories herein, it might say, are the equivalent of a 50-minute jog. The decision to drink the Coke then becomes, would you rather spend the evening on a treadmill, or just not drink the soda?

Some would say that’s a joyless, infantilizing idea. The implication that people can’t understand calorie counts is unduly cynical. Have a Coke and a smile, not a Coke and a guilt-wail. Others would protest on grounds that it’s impossible to make this kind of exercise requirement universal to people of all ages, body sizes, and levels of fitness. Everyone burns calories at different rates. But Sara Bleich, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is not among these people. She describes these labels as her dream.

For the past four years, translating nutrition information into exercise equivalents has been the focus of Bleich’s increasingly popular research endeavor. Her latest findings on the effectiveness of the concept are published today in the American Journal of Public Health. In the study, researchers posted signs next to the soda and juice in Baltimore corner stores that read: “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” or “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about five miles of walking?” (And, long as those distances and times may seem, they may even underestimate the magnitude of the metabolic insult of liquid sugar.)

The signs were a proxy for an actual food label, but they made the point. They effectively led to fewer juice and soda purchases, and to purchases of smaller sizes (12-ounce cans instead of 20-ounce bottles). Bleich also saw learned behavior; even after the signs came down, the local patrons continued to buy less soda and juice.

“The problem with calories is that they’re not very meaningful to people,” Bleich told me. “The average American doesn’t know much about calories, and they’re not good at numeracy.”

That concern is the impetus for a growing movement to make nutrition information as simple and practical as possible. Some have proposed a three-tiered stoplight system, where healthy foods are labeled with a green light (Go!), and junk bears a damning red. Yellow is … everything else. Others have proposed an even simpler thumbs-up, thumbs-down dichotomy.


10 thoughts on “How much biking does that breakfast get you? Thinking about food as fuel

  1. “How about instead you think, “French fries fuel a lot of burpees! ””

    I’ve actually noticed that my thinking has shifted to be like this in, say, over the last couple of years or so. I occasionally track calories, macros, etc., to be aware of what’s going on with my eating, and the one thing that I consistently see is that I have to be conscientious about eating enough when I am training a lot. (Quality problem, I know.) There are other reasons why I avoid full-sugar soda or why I try not to eat fries all the time even though I want to, but the caloric “exercise cost” is not among them. Instead my food is all about getting my body what I need so I can perform the way I want to, and that almost always includes calories.

  2. I have no problem with the conception of food as fuel, as long as it is also recognised that food has important (and often positive) social and emotional impacts. I think trying to negate those aspects of eating and drinking is damaging to our relationship with food and our bodies.
    I strongly dislike the idea of sticking exercise requirements on food labels; as well as the fact that, as this post highlighted, energy expenditure varies hugely among individuals, what about people with high metabolisms and active jobs who just want a sugary soft drink on their way home, or those who can’t exercise for one reason or another? To me, this would be really triggering. Surely there would e better ways to encourage people to make healthier food choices and reconnect with where their food comes from, and what their bodies need?

  3. I feel like any calorie exercise missing a lot of nutrition: which I always thought was the point of food as fuel. It’s not just calories, but vitamins and minerals (and some foods have a lot more of those than others), macronutrients and fibre. Any reduction to calories misses all of that.

  4. Kuri is right, that we can’t reduce food to strictly calories to fuel our body, but there is a whole whack of vitamins and minerals that are also critical to our overall bodily functions and good health.

    I also agree with greatvegan here, that with some meals and sharing a meal with others, there is a strong component of social and emotional well-being, as well as cultural sharing. Don’t ever forget that –otherwise we wouldn’t have diverse cuisines, culinary creativity and food would become boring day after day. Or we have some people complaining of eating alone day after day …without conversation with others. We make such a big deal about the positive of a family eating together and here we are narrowly focused just on calories (?).

    Food dishes and meal eating for human beings, not all of it can be reduced to ie. gasoline for a car.

    Just think about it, does everyone in the world eat a granola bar for fuel? It’s a cultural thing. It is…..go ask the farmer in the rice paddy.

  5. The implication here is also that we are supposed to “burn off” all the food we eat; of course this isn’t true, it is possible to consume a Coke and still eat fewer calories a day than the basal metabolic rate, in which case exercising to counteract the Coke might not be necessary.

    I’d prefer to see real nutrition education (not weight loss education) instead of this– it could be triggering for a lot of people.

  6. This type of labelling will only work and perhaps might be beneficial for those people who are already committed to exercise and who are already knowledgeable to some extent about nutrition.

    1. But read some of the links. Some of the studies showed it reduced soda consumption among school kids. That’s why my diabetes researcher friend was impressed.

  7. Just read the links, Sam . Fascinating. So my initial thoughts were not just wrong – they were completely wrong. This type of labelling might be the most effective with at least certain people who are unknowledgable or illiterate as the last article states, vis-a-vis nutrition, which includes high school students, and especially it seems, black high school students in the US. Thing is though – high school students of any race still have the ability and usually the inclination to run, play physically, engage in sports and exercise in general. Even if their eating and exercise habits have become problematic, they are still not that far removed (in time) from exercising. I still wonder how effective the labelling is with adults who know little about nutrtition, i.e. the adults who are most at risk.

  8. I like the idea of both the food as fuel for training young minds to choose wisely, but I also like the idea of showing that food with poor nutrition content should require a pay out of both more exercise and a consumption of a more nutrient dense food. Like 1 thing of fries equals 600 burpees plus an apple because you don’t just need to burn off those calories, you need to replenish your body with the nutrients you missed out on.

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