UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Food labels should include ‘activity equivalents,’ health experts argue

One of the most read items on labels is the calorie count.

Current food labels have little impact on changing people’s behavior. Most of us are bewildered by the long list of information on the labels, and spend little time looking at them, much less trying to decipher their information.

One of the most read (relatively speaking) items on labels is the calorie count, but even then we’re unlikely to know how to translate that information into anything meaningful.

Meanwhile, we keep getting heavier and heavier. Here in the United States, two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. And, as recently reported by the World Health Organization, the rest of the world is quickly following suit.

An innovative approach

Enter a new idea: “activity equivalent” calorie labeling. Such labels would use easy-to-recognize symbols to show how many minutes of several different physical activities — such as walking, running and biking — are equivalent to burning off the calories in the product.

For example, a chocolate bar that contains 229 calories could have the following images on its front wrapper: a walker with 42 min next to it, a runner (22 min) and a biker (49 min).

“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,” writes Shirley Cramer, chief executive of Great Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health, in a commentary on the topic published last week in the BMJ.

Earlier this year, her organization issued a position paper in which it advocated for activity equivalent calorie labeling on all packaged foods and drinks. (The U.K. needs to change its residents’ eating behavior as urgently as the U.S. does, for more than two-thirds of British adults are also either overweight or obese.) Surveys conducted by the society have suggested that this approach can work.

An example of “activity equivalent” calorie labeling
Royal Society for Public Health
An example of “activity equivalent”
calorie labeling

“When the Royal Society for Public Health consulted the public, more than half (53%) said that they would positively change their behaviour as a result of viewing activity equivalent calorie information — by choosing healthier products, eating smaller portions, or doing more physical exercise, all of which could help to counter obesity,” Cramer writes (with British spellings).

Of course, this is what people said they’d do if food products had those labels. The society didn’t conduct a study to see if the labels would actually alter people’s behaviors.

Other researchers have, however, done such a study — at least, on one aspect of behavioral change. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University reported in 2014 that teenagers were significantly less likely to purchase sodas in corner stores in Baltimore when the stores posted signs showing the physical activity equivalents for those products.

‘People can’t outrun a bad diet’

Cramer is careful to point out in her commentary the limitations of activity equivalent calorie labeling.

“We won’t reduce obesity by focusing on diet or physical activity alone,” she writes. “People need to create a balanced relationship between the calories they consume and the calories they expend.”

She also stresses that “people can’t out-run a bad diet, and messages about the importance of healthy and varied eating must also continue.”

Royal Society for Public Health

Still, “placing information on food and drink packaging to promote an active lifestyle could be a logical solution to a multifaceted problem,” Cramer says, “and the benefits of being active go far beyond maintaining a healthy weight. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has described regular physical activity as a ‘miracle cure’ because it boosts self-esteem, mood, sleep quality, and energy levels and reduces the risk of stress, depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.”

If only we could fit all of that on food labels, too.

FMI: You can read Cramer’s commentary on the BMJ website. You’ll also find the Royal Society’s position paper on activity equivalent calorie labeling on the organization’s website.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/11/2016 - 10:02 am.

    Key Ingredients

    Walking the aisles of a proper grocery store
    Preparing simple proper food
    Driving past the drive-ups

  2. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 04/11/2016 - 10:26 am.

    No, thank you, though

    We would have to represent a range which makes the label too confusing. For example, 30 minutes of bicycling burns 315 to 466 calories, depending on the person’s weight (here, 125 to 185 pounds).

  3. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 04/11/2016 - 02:30 pm.


    Such a label would be too large to fit on any product. It’s amazing how much energy “experts” are wasting on trying to “get” ie., force people to change their “behavior.” If they want to, they will. The fact is, we are healthy enough, we live long enough, and we don’t need to be told what to do. If the chief concern is reducing the need for health care because of its cost, then we need to address the causes of the cost, not manipulate the patients. Also, activity charts would be misleading, because the benefits of activity continue beyond the time spent, do not address when you do it, which also makes a difference, and does not include sensible activities, like housework and sexual activity, which certainly raise heart rates.
    Why do writers like this rush to push people around? Because they are just reacting to what they read and making a lot of assumptions. Which goes back to, we don’t need to live longer, we don’t need to be different. We are fine as we are. The real issue is, how much time are we spending on computers. They are the problem. In the 1980s, people were plenty active, walking, running, biking, dancing, and it was enough. The message that it wasn’t enough began with the increase in health clubs seeking members. Now nothing is good enough unless we are doing yoga, eating ridiculous diets, exercising 6 hours a day, and totally focused on selfish goals. Just think, people used to use leisure time to read and go to plays and concerts, to socialize, not to only exercise. Back then, we had culture. And we were pretty healthy. But more importantly, life was good. Now it is not.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 04/12/2016 - 07:48 am.

      Corporate compulsions

      Your comment put me in mind of all the companies currently jumping on the bandwagon of requiring their employees to adopt all sorts of lifestyle changes in order to avoid being charged higher monthly health insurance premiums. Employees have to fill out questionnaires disclosing things like how many minutes of different levels of exercise they get each week, how much they eat, how many hours a day they sit, how many hours a night they sleep, etc. And then, if the do not “pass” some sort of “good enough” criteria, they have to follow a mandated “improvement plan” in order not to have an exorbitant surcharge applied to their monthly premium.

      And yet, these same companies are not, for example, modifying the work schedules of employees whose jobs may REQUIRE them to remain at their desk for much of their day, generally also requiring them to remain pretty much tethered to their computer. (They thought they had it made just giving said employees standup desks, but recent findings suggest this may not be the panacea it was originally presented as).

      And meanwhile, as you say, what are these companies doing to focus on how much the *providers* are (over)charging rather than laying all the blame on the “consumers”? They’re taking the easy way out by putting all the burden on the employees, and it’s the employees’ privacy and possible future job security that ends up being on the line.

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/11/2016 - 02:31 pm.

    Resting rate

    Our bodies use calories at rest, too. Making calorie counts into equivalent activity times isn’t very accurate. If we exercised based on calorie count ingested, we’d all starve.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 04/11/2016 - 06:06 pm.

      Well noted

      It’s not the number of calories ingested, so much as the number of “spare” calories that create spare tires, etc.

      Pretty much just more marketing obeisance by these folk, isn’t this?
      But, then, I bought their prior preaching about high fructose sweeteners as culprit.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/11/2016 - 03:31 pm.

    We don’t no more stinking labels….

    I would label this “activity equivalent label” as junk science.

Leave a Reply