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