Food Labels That Connect Calorie Counts To Exercise Might Change Eating Habits

It's the holidays and, as The Takeout's resident recipe developer, my diet for the past two months has involved testing and re-testing puddings, cookies, pizza, nachos, pigs in a blanket, and even more cookies that were, thanks to either a stroke of genius or a latent death wish, made with bacon and ham. (To my credit, I did write a vegetable recipe this month, but I fried it.)

I know perfectly well what foods I'm supposed to be eating and what foods it's best to avoid. I just... don't. At a certain stage of hunger, the numbers on the back of a box become abstract and meaningless. My brain hasn't interpreted calories as a unit of energy since high school bio. But if nutrition labels reminded me of this scientific fact on a daily basis, would it perhaps stop me from eating my next frozen burrito? A team of scientists in Britain thinks so.

In a recently published study, researchers from Loughborough University found that food labels showing the correlation between calories and physical activity might help people make better food choices. Physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) food labeling takes existing nutritional information and adds in a description of how much physical activity it would take to actually burn those calories off.

For example, say you look at calorie count on a small bar of chocolate: 230 calories doesn't seem that terrible, does it? Now imagine that label says the chocolate has 230 calories, and you'll need to run for over 20 minutes to burn it off. PACE labeling prompts consumers to think about what they eat as a function of what they require as fuel. And based on the results of the study, research suggests that PACE labeling could potentially slice around 200 calories off daily intake.

The new labeling has drawn criticism from eating disorder advocates and body positivity activists alike, who say that viewing food in terms of its ability to be "canceled out" by exercise is an unhealthy approach to nutrition and impacts our psychological relationship to food.

The researchers cautioned that most studies took place in controlled environments rather than real-world settings, so the results shouldn't be considered scientific gospel just yet. While the PACE labeling appears to be more effective than no nutrition labeling overall, CNN notes, there's no conclusive data that shows PACE to be more effective than the labels we already have.