PACE labelling on food

A new study recommends replacing calorific content on food labels with the amount of exercise required to burn it off. So, a can of Coca Cola would inform you that it takes a 22 minute run to burn it off, and a pint of Guinness would warn you that you would need to do an hour’s yoga to get back to baseline. The study suggests that physical activity calorie equivalence (PACE) labelling would be more effective in causing people to consider the calories they are consuming than the alternatives.

Researchers from the University of Loughborough say that PACE labelling could shave up to 200 calories per day from a person’s intake. The NHS says that, while PACE labelling could cause people to change their eating habits, the study is not conclusive. They say that people behave differently in the real world than they do under laboratory conditions.

For what we are about to receive

At the same time, a mental health campaigner has questioned the usefulness of PACE labelling, saying that it could have a negative impact on people suffering from eating disorders. Hope Virgo, a campaigner for people with eating disorders, is quoted as saying that there is an over-emphasis on calorie-counting and exercise. The eating disorder charity Beat said that “labelling food in this way risks being incredibly triggering”. 

Are the exercise Apps contributing to eating disorders?

Professor Amanda Daley, who led the research at Loughborough University, told the BBC, "There is no evidence that physical activity campaigns lead to eating disorders." However, an article in the Independent in February 2019 by Carolyn Plateau, also of Loughborough University, said that a recent study had found a greater level of disordered eating among users of fitness apps, suggesting a link between calorie-tracking and problems with food. That said, this does not prove that PACE labelling would necessarily have any kind of detrimental effect.

Better to consider the implications?

Obesity and overweightness continue to be problems in the UK. Admissions to hospital due to obesity were four times more frequent (at around 600,000) in 2017 than they were in 2010 (at fewer than 200,000). Simultaneously, fewer than half the people over 75 are getting as much exercise as is recommended.

Myths around calorie and 'burn' counting

In her article, 5 Myths about weight loss, nutrition expert Stephanie Moore points out that, "The concept of energy in = energy out, i.e. if you eat less and exercise more you will lose weight, can only ever work in the very short term". The trouble is that the biology of life is never that simple.

However, providing more data does offer a sense of control, there is great comfort in setting boundaries on how much to eat for those people who feel out of control with their food cravings, but this framework only offers a short term solution and does not encourage a healthy emotional or physical relationship to food. Counting calories (or the associated energy burn), only serves to further distance people from re-learning the natural drives and desires that allow us to eat in an appropriate way according to our bodily needs.  

If you decide to restrict your calories for a period of time, you are powerfully training your body to run on less. It’s called the famine effect.

An abbreviation for angiotensin-converting enzyme Full medical glossary
Excess accumulation of fat in the body. Full medical glossary