In an effort to tackle the growing prevalence of obesity, the UK government has introduced a number of public health strategies over the years, including changes to the way we label food. For example, the “traffic light” color-coding system, introduced in 2013, aims to make it easier for consumers to know whether or not the food they eat is healthy for them.
But some critics say this type of labeling can still be difficult to understand or apply in practice, and doesn’t necessarily lead people to choose healthier foods. Given that obesity is still on the rise, it is clear that current strategies are not working.
Recently, a team of researchers from Loughborough University came up with a different system of food labeling called “caloric equivalent of physical activity”, or Pace. This method illustrates the number of minutes of exercise it would take to burn calories from certain foods and beverages. The researchers showed that this new approach was easier for participants to understand – and may be more likely to help people avoid high-calorie foods.
But while these types of food labels have the benefit of being easier to understand, they can also be misleading and not suitable for everyone.
As well as being easier to understand, the Loughborough team also showed in a previous study that using exercise to illustrate equivalent calories in food and drink can help people consume fewer calories. – approximately 65 fewer calories each time they eat – compared to other food labeling methods. .
Although this may not seem like much, over time it can help people overeat less and can also cause them to eat fewer high-calorie foods, such as fast food.
Other studies have shown that Pace may also help increase physical activity levels somewhat, which could be beneficial for those looking to be more active.
Using exercise to illustrate the calories in food can therefore be a useful tool for consumers, as it provides understandable and relevant information that can help them better plan their meals and workouts – potentially leading to healthier food choices while encouraging physical activity, both of which are essential. in the reduction or prevention of obesity.
Although early findings on exercise-based food labels seem promising, research is still needed in real-world settings and over longer time periods if it is to inform future public health policy.
Another obvious pitfall of the Pace approach is that it generalizes calories burned. This means that the averages used on the labels may not correspond to how each person burns calories.
A variety of factors — such as the type of exercise you do, the intensity of your exercise, your age, and your fitness level — all influence the amount of calories you burn. How we digest and metabolize food is also very individual.
This could mean that general food labels could be misleading. The calories estimated to be burned on the packet are unlikely to apply to everyone. This could cause some people to eat more or less food than they need.
Another reason the information on these labels could be misleading is that they assume all calories consumed are equal. For example, two foods with the same calorie content may have different levels of fibre, fat, sugars or protein.
All of these are metabolized differently, which will influence how our food is used and stored by our body. Foods low in fiber, high in sugar and high in energy, for example, have been linked to weight gain compared to healthier options with a similar number of calories.
The pace labels could also inadvertently encourage people to eat more low-quality or ultra-processed foods because they may think they can just exercise to burn off those calories. However, unhealthy and ultra-processed foods can still harm the body, even if the calories they contain are used up.
Other experts believe that such types of food labels will only have a short-term effect in changing food choices. Another concern is that Pace could trigger eating disorders or over-exercise in susceptible populations. It could also cause people to eat less in order to avoid the exercise needed to burn extra calories.
Our point of view
Labeling foods and drinks with the amount of exercise needed to burn them can certainly have some benefits. However, it is clear that a one-size-fits-all approach may be too simplistic when it comes to tackling obesity in a population. This is especially true when you consider that each person’s diet, activity levels, lifestyle, and even genetics are different from one another.
As such, obesity reduction strategies should aim to take a more individualized approach to helping people increase their total daily movement and activity, while helping them assess their eating habits and portion sizes, as well as choosing better quality foods.
Justin Roberts, Associate Professor, Health Nutrition and Exercise, Anglia Ruskin University and Henry Chung, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science, University of Essex
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
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