Millions of us are frequently searching for tools to help us lose weight. We're looking because losing weight is hard. And those struggling to do so often feel like there's got to be a better way—or something, anything, that can help make it easier. Well, now there’s a possibility of having exercise advice on food labels to help with exactly that. Would it help you? It may seem simplistic but it looks like it may actually make a difference. Let’s take a look at this innovative idea.
Food labels offer a lot of information already. They provide calorie, carb and sugar counts and breakdowns of the vitamins and minerals in the food. The labels also give a list of ingredients to help us navigate allergies or avoid things that may be harmful to our goals. But even though they tell us how many calories are in a serving of the food in question, one thing these labels don’t show is how much activity might be required to use up the calories consumed.
While it’s possible to lose weight with diet alone, adding exercise can help speed up the process. Even taking a brisk walk burns calories and can lead to weight loss. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize how many calories they’re eating in the strictest sense. And this is compounded by the fact that a calorie is a little abstract. It's not as if we can hold one in our hand and say this is a calorie and I can burn this by doing the following. Consider that 100 calories of cake looks very different from 100 calories of cucumber. Or meat, or coffee—and you can see how people largely ignore the calorie information because it's hard to grasp and to translate that into usable information. Adding exercise information and advice to food labels may make it easier for some people to grasp the ways that calories work in the body as it works to create energy.
The proposed labels, called PACE labels for Physical Activity Calorie Equivalent, wouldn’t replace current food label information. Instead, they would add to the knowledge people are already being given about their food. Rather than providing just the calorie count, people buying food would see how many minutes of a specific exercise they might need to use those calories in a very real (and concrete) sense.
In some cases, that information may lead to people avoiding the food altogether or eating a smaller portion of it because it frames the significance of calories in terms of action rather than the abstract. Others might actually follow the label’s advice and work in physical activity to use the calories they’re taking in.
Studies looking at PACE labeling have been small-scale and performed in a controlled environment, far different than a real-world, large-scale study. But there has been enough evidence for calorie reduction to conclude that this type of labeling is worth a try as it may really help. The current labeling system, showing only calorie numbers and nutrient information, hasn’t made a difference in obesity rates as much as we all hoped it would help us by providing information — but the PACE labeling system just may change that.
One concern raised by some who are cautious about PACE labeling is that of eating disorders. There is a concern that providing exercise information related to “burning off” the calories consumed may lead people to over-exercise if they have an eating disorder or to believe they’ve consumed too many calories, triggering them into restriction or other unhealthy behaviors. More research will be needed to determine whether PACE labeling plays any role in eating disorders in the general population.
While it’s true that “you can’t outrun a bad diet,” exercise is still an important part of the weight-loss equation for many people and it does much more than burn calories so it's an important part of any healthy lifestyle. Daily exercise can make a person fitter and more toned, increase muscle mass, and improve heart health. PACE labeling could encourage good habits and conscious choices in a way that e can really get behind.
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