fitness · health

How far do I have to cycle to burn off a banana cream pie?

CW: mention of weight stigma and eating disorders.

Food labels are a good thing. Otherwise I might have to purchase my own bar code scanner for the kitchen.

graphic drawing of can of food.
can of food. who knows what’s in it?

In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in calorie-labeling on foods in restaurants and other places that sell food. In the US, this has been the result of public health and consumer advocacy, aided by the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The motivation for mandating calorie labeling is to provide consumers with information to encourage them to make “healthier” food consumption choices (meaning choices in accord with standards set by government agencies like the USDA).

Full disclosure: in my day job as a public health ethicist, I wrote a short piece about calorie labeling. tl:dr version– food policies aimed at increasing health and health equity at the same time are complicated. There are some positive and negative effects of calorie labeling, and other policies and programs are needed to promote health-according-to-everyone.

But that was so 2015. Fast-forwarding to the end of 2019, we now see news reports of a study suggesting that calorie labeling is out, and activity labeling is in. What might activity labeling be? The idea (such as it is) is to put information on food packaging telling you how many minutes you’ll need to walk or run in order to burn the number of calories in said food. Here are some proposed illustrations from the original paper on this topic:

There are so many objections that this idea (such as it is) raises. I have a bunch of them, but first, let’s see what Dr. Yoni Freedhof (who knows and writes a lot about body weight regulation and health policy, among other things) said on Twitter (thanks Sam for pointing this out to me):

Exercise calorie labeling reinforces unhealthy notions that the only point of exercise is burning calories, that doing so affords people shit food, that exercise is the primary driver of weight, and that people with obesity are lazy gluttons.

Yep. I’d say he hit the nail on the head with that tweet. Just to pile on, here are a few more objections:

  • Calorie food labeling has been shown to have negative effects on some populations– it can increase weight stigma, trigger those with eating disorders, and further isolate and marginalize groups already burdened with health disparities. Activity food labeling may produce negative effects as well; we’d need to study this a lot more before implementing anything.
  • It’s not even clear to what extent activity labeling works– the 15 studies used in the original article were small, of variable quality and power, and their results were not stunning.
  • Using walking and running on the labels is inaccurate and seriously ableist. There are other ways to label energy output (e.g. use of METs— thanks, commenter on FB who reminded me of this) that are more accurate and not activity-specific.

Labels can be a good thing when they are accurate, understandable, relevant, not shaming, not exclusionary, and useful. But honestly, if it’s activity labels or nothing, I’ll just do this:

Opening a can to see what's inside.
Opening a can to see what’s inside.

Hey readers, any thoughts or reactions on activity labels on our food? I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “How far do I have to cycle to burn off a banana cream pie?

  1. All of your points make sense; exercise labeling is bound to be unfair and discriminatory in all sorts of ways. But before even going there, it’s going to be seriously inaccurate, misleading, unhelpful. We are not all the same size, so our calorie burns are quite different. Average – well, average hardly fits anyone, really. I happen to be small, and happen to use a watt meter on my bike that displays how much power I use, and to derive from that a reasonable estimate of calories used (no, that is absolutely NOT why I got the power meter! I use it because it is an accurate way to measure how strong I am on any given day – heart rate may be different if I am tired, for example. Watts are watts – entirely unsympathetic, entirely matter-of-fact, so they help keep a training plan accurate.). My partner and I are about 3:2 in size, and his calorie number is always roughly 50% higher. So which one of us is the label measuring? (Hint: the answer is almost surely neither one.)

  2. I appreciate calorie labeling in restaurants, where it can be impossible to be aware of how over-the-top a meal is without that information (2000 calorie burgers and the like). I use that information to make an informed decision based on my own goals. I also appreciate it may be problematic for others.

    AND I cannot think of how exercise labeling helps anyone but the food processors making cheap, subsidized edible food-like products who can now say we’re all making an “informed decision,” and it isn’t their fault that we overate their products. (Even though plenty of us find highly processed foods very positively reinforcing, and there’s evidence that it’s intentional.)

  3. Thanks so much, Catherine – when I saw the article in the Guardian that linked to the original study my head almost exploded. Even though I’m now very happy in my body and (thanks to this community) super informed about the many variables that shape our humanness, I found myself instantly triggered.

    How many of us grew up with EXACTLY this food shame, though unnamed in the moment? I saw myself at the grocery store faced with the shame and the trigger, and could only imagine what would go through the minds and bodies of those who are still working on feeling good and safe in themselves. Couple with that the extraordinary inaccuracies, pitfalls, and ableisms that you and others point out re the labels, and I’m horrified: there I am at Fortino’s and the baked beans are gaslighting me. I mean, COME ON!

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