Thursday, 13 February 2020

Putting Exercise Amounts on Food Labels Is A Dangerous Idea

WTF are you doingToday I’m writing about the horribly misguided idea of putting exercise amounts on food labels. Before I get too far into it, I want to point out that this may be triggering to those who could develop, have, or are recovering from disordered eating and/or eating disorders.

Some UK researchers are trying to suggest that food labels should include “how much activity it would take to burn off food.” They are calling it PACE (Physical Activity Calorie Equivalent) and they claim it could “combat ob*sity.”

There’s so much wrong with this that I hardly know where to begin.

First of all, when I hear the phrase “combat ob*sity” I imagine someone rushing at me, wearing boxing gloves. All these metaphors that are used to discuss what are supposed to be health interventions for fat people are telling, in their common theme of violence. Combating… tackling… war on… – these are all things that harm, not help, their victims. It’s another reminder that they want us thin or dead and they don’t seem to care which.

They are claiming that this is based in research. In reality, the The UK Royal Society for Public Health wanted to use PACE labeling and created a project team who seem to have been tasked to find a way to say that the research supported it (anyone who learned scientific method at the fourth-grade science fair knows that this has already gone awry.)

They cobbled together the results of 14 small studies, each of which had a different design, and almost none of which were carried out in real-world settings. The studies found that in a single incident of reading a PACE type label (typically in a non-real-world setting) people consumed fewer calories. They then extrapolated from that single incident to three meals and two snacks a day to come up with a number of calories not eaten that sounded more impressive.

Then the study’s author put out a statement that said “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 ob*sity and related diseases.”

Except that’s not what they found. All they found that in one incident of using a Pace label, a small group of people ate a few less calories in that one incidence. (Seriously, the number of words in their press release that mean “maybe, we don’t actually know” would be impressive if it wasn’t so awful – might, may, maybe, linked, suggests, associated, some promise, likely to, could, the list goes on and on. They have not drawn a single solid conclusion. Not. One.

And here we see one of the major problems with research around weight and health- it’s held to an impossibly, shockingly, low standard. As a former research methods student, I can tell you that making the claims they are based on the “research” they’ve done would cause a student in a Beginning Research Methods class to fail their assignment.

Then there are the issues with the actual calculation.

“Under the proposed system, a small bar of chocolate would carry a label informing consumers that it would take 23 minutes of running or 46 minutes of walking to burn off the 230 calories it contains.”

The number of calories that are burned during a minute of activity varies wildly from person to person, based on many factors that include everything from the person’s weight, muscle mass, balance of slow- and fast-twitch muscle, and level of fitness, to how fast the person is running or walking, what kind of surface they are doing it on, and how hilly it is.

The lack of even the most basic science here is staggering. And that’s not the worst of it.

You see, it’s not just fat people these so-called scientists don’t care about, it’s also people of all sizes who may develop, have, or are recovering from, eating disorders. Because the idea that you have to use activity to earn food or that you should “burn off” off food using exercise is a precursor to, and common behavior of eating disorders.

So people who are supposed to be public health professionals are going to risk perpetuating eating disorders, some of the most deadly mental illnesses, because in a few small studies a few people ate a few fewer calories one time?

At the very least, interventions that claim to be pro-public health should not leave the public less healthy. This is beyond irresponsible.

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