One British organization suggests that "activity equivalents" be added to already confusing food labels
Yes, it's still true that if your goal is to lose weight, calories in should not exceed calories out, meaning that your body needs to burn more calories than you eat in a day in order to see progress on the scale. That does not mean, however, that you need to count every calorie you ingest or meticulously watch the calorie marker on the treadmill. (P.S. Those aren't really all that accurate anyway.) Not to mention, strength training and lean muscle mass help you burn more calories when you're doing nothing at all. (See: 9 Reasons Every Woman Should Lift Weights)
Still, the UK's Royal Society for Pubic Health suggests that "activity equivalents" be added to food labels, Time reports. In other words, you should know what it would take to burn off the food you're about to eat. Published in The BMJ, Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the RSPH, says that the UK's population "desperately needs innovative schemes to change behavior." Considering that two-thirds of Brits are overweight or obese, we can all agree with that part.
In her statement, Cramer goes on to say that "the aim is to prompt people to be more mindful of the energy they consume and how these calories relate to activities in their everyday lives, to encourage them to be more physically active." But while mindfulness and activity are certainly important, "we shouldn't focus solely on the need to burn calories," says Carissa Bealart, R.D., and co-owner of Evolution Fitness Orlando.
In fact, there are several red flags and flaws to this plan:
There is no one-size-fits-all label
First off, not everyone burns the same amount of calories, even if they're doing the same exact activity. It all depends on what you weigh, how much lean muscle mass you have, how fast your metabolism is, how old you are, among other factors. Bealert also points out that the intensity of the exercise is not specified on these proposed labels, which is important. Thirty minutes of sprints certainly burns more calories than a light jog. There's no way you can fit all of that onto a little can of soda.
It fosters an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise
Food is fuel. Whether it's to quite literally, fuel you for a HIIT workout, or keep you full and alert to get you through the day, food is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle—not to mention, it tastes good! Food is meant to be enjoyed, and encouraging consumers to track their food to activity ratio in this way is asking for trouble. It turns food from something fun into something you have to "get rid of" or eliminate in some way. While Bealert doesn't think this initiative alone would cause disordered eating (and to be fair, Cramer acknowledges this in the paper), this method of labeling "will only serve to confuse the general public, and could lead to disordered eating in those who may be predisposed to that type of obsessive behavior." (Read more about What It Feels Like to have Exercise Bulimia.)
Where do healthy high-calorie foods fit in?
Remember: This concept only takes into account calories—how many calories it takes to burn off that muffin, for example. But not all calories are created equal. A creamy and delicious avocado (can we get an amen for the almighty avocado?!) costs you nearly 250 calories, but you also get more than 9 grams of fiber and loads of healthy monounsaturated fats. So use that avocado by swiping it across two pieces of whole-grain bread, and by the Royal Society's standards, you should be spending your entire hour-long lunch break walking off those calories. (Nah, girl. Embrace these 10 Savory Avocado Recipes That's Aren't Guacamole.)
At the end of the day, nutrition just isn't that simple. One hundred calories of chips versus 100 calories of fresh berries are two very different things, says Bealert. They may both technically take the same amount of time to burn off, but the berries offer you antioxidants and fiber while the greasy chips lend pretty much nothing of nutritional value and won't keep you full for very long. "A better reform might be to add this label to foods that meet specific criteria, like excess calories from added sugar," says Bealert. "Foods cannot be given a ranking on calories alone."