Food Labels Indicating Amount of Exercise Needed to Burn Calories May Help People Make Healthier Choices
Fri, December 3, 2021

Food Labels Indicating Amount of Exercise Needed to Burn Calories May Help People Make Healthier Choices

Labels showing how much exercise is needed to burn off the calories from a food item may help consumers make healthier food choices, a new study finds / Photo by: Maxim Zarya via 123RF

 

Labels showing how much exercise is needed to burn off the calories from a food item may help consumers make healthier food choices, a new study finds.

In the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, researchers from Loughborough University proposed putting physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) labels—an improved labeling system that helps identify a product's calories and nutrient content.

PACE labels have illustrations of a runner and a walker with an estimate of how long a person needs to run or walk to burn off the calories in the food with the label.

 

Making Healthier Choices

The researchers gathered data from 14 randomized trials comparing PACE labeling with other types of food labeling or none and analyzed for possible influence on the selection, purchase, or consumption of food and beverages (except for alcohol products).

Their analysis showed that people tend to choose items that have significantly fewer calories—around 65 less per meal— when PACE labels are put on food and drink items, as well as on menus. They also associated this labeling to the consumption of around 80 to 100 fewer calories compared to no food labels and other types of labeling.

Wider application of PACE labels will help a person reduce an average of 200 calories a day, based on the study's findings and the average consumption of three meals a day plus two snacks.

"The evidence shows that even a relatively small reduction in daily calorie intake (100 calories) combined with a sustained increase in physical activity is likely to be good for health and could help curb obesity at the population level," said Amanda Daley, the study's lead author and a professor of behavioral medicine.

"It is a simple strategy that could be easily included on food/drinks packaging by manufacturers, on shelving price labels in supermarkets, and/or in menus in restaurants/fast-food outlets."

PACE labels may be worth a try, the researchers suggest, considering that the current food labeling system of calorie and nutrient content is poorly understood. They add that there's also little evidence suggesting current labels affect food consumption or consumers' spending habits.

“Public health agencies may want to consider the possibility of including policies to promote it as a strategy that contributes to the prevention and treatment of obesity and related diseases,” Daley added.

A Cool Idea but…

People often underestimate the number of calories in their food, which is why there's a need to "make it easier for the public to make healthier decisions about what they eat," Daley said in an email to Reuters.

"We think the public will understand this better than telling them how many calories are in a food item."

Putting PACE labels on food and beverage items is a "cool idea," said Avigdor Arad, director of the Mount Sinai PhysioLab and an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s in New York City.

However, he noted that there is no evidence suggesting this action will be effective and additional studies are needed.  Arad added that highlighting the calorie content on food items may not be the best technique to encourage people to make healthier food choices due to the lack of information on food quality.

"Certain foods are nutrient-dense and also calorie-dense. We don’t want people to develop a fear of consuming things like nuts, avocados, figs, and certain legumes."

The estimated time of running or walking on the PACE labels may also seem unrealistic to some people, the endocrinologist told Reuters, noting that other factors are liable in estimating the rates at which calories are burned.

This might make people skeptical of the numbers on the labels, although it is still an idea that's worth exploring further.

People often underestimate the number of calories in their food, which is why there's a need to "make it easier for the public to make healthier decisions about what they eat," Daley said in an email to Reuters / Photo by: ferli via 123RF


It's Problematic

Other professionals are also advocating for PACE labels, namely the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

"Small changes" like putting the labels can "make a big overall difference to calorie consumption, and ultimately weight gain," said Duncan Stephenson, deputy chief executive at the RSPH who also welcomed the research.

According to CNN, other studies have also demonstrated the health benefits of reducing calories. A study published last year showed that cutting 300 calories can lead to lower blood pressure and levels of bad cholesterol, as well as a 24% reduction of triglycerides concentrations.

While it may help people who want to reduce their calorie intake, other experts believe PACE labels might cause negative effects among people with eating disorders.

This labeling system "could be extremely problematic" for those who have problems with eating since it primarily suggests that food should be "earnt or burnt off," Nichola Ludlam-Raine, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, told CNN.

She added that PACE labeling also promotes mainly considering calories instead of nutrients when it comes to making food choices.

"Remember, you cannot out-run a bad diet," Ludlam-Raine said, noting that exercising doesn't mean a free pass to living off junk like chocolates and fizzy drinks.

CNN says Daley acknowledged this concern but said there is no evidence suggesting PACE labels can cause eating disorders.