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Food labels showing how much exercise is needed to burn off calories helps people make healthier choices, study finds

The study’s findings suggest that PACE labeling could potentially lead the average person to consume about 195 fewer calories per day, the authors write.

food label
A new study estimates that if physical activity calorie equivalent labeling were widely used, it might cut up to 195 calories from the average person’s daily diet.
REUTERS/Jim Young

Although foods and drinks are required to list calories on their packaging, that method of labeling has been shown to have little effect on getting us to make healthier dietary choices. It certainly hasn’t helped stem the growing obesity epidemic.

That’s because many of us don’t have a clear understanding of how many calories we should be consuming daily, based on our activity level (between 1,600 and 2,400 for adult women and between 2,000 and 3,000 for adult men, according to U.S. government guidelines). So, even if we look at the calorie counts in foods, the numbers having little meaning to us.

Many health experts say its time we took a different approach. They advocate for a type of labeling called physical activity calorie equivalent, or PACE.  It shows not only a food’s calorie count, but also how many minutes of physical activity are needed to burn off the energy in those calories.

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The PACE label for a 229-calorie candy bar, for example, would display — along with the calorie count — small symbols of a person showing the calories are equivalent to 42 minutes of walking or 22 minutes of running for the average adult.

By putting calories in context, such labels work. In fact, a new study, published this week in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, estimates that if PACE labeling were widely used, it might cut up to 195 calories from the average person’s daily diet.

That may seem like an insignificant amount, but it’s not. Research suggests that if Americans consumed as little as 100 fewer calories per day, U.S. obesity rates would start going downward.

“People think that obesity is caused by gluttony. It isn’t. Obesity is caused by all of us eating just a little bit too much,” said Amanda Daley, the current study’s lead author and a professor of behavioral medicine at Loughborough University in Great Britain, in an interview with the Guardian.

Study details

Daley and her colleagues searched the scientific literature for previous studies that had examined the effectiveness of PACE labeling. They identified 15 relevant randomized controlled trials (considered the gold standard of medical research) and then pooled the data from 14 of them.

An analysis of that pooled data showed that PACE labeling is more effective at reducing the number of calories people consume than other forms of labeling — or no labeling.

Examples of physical activity calorie equivalent labelling.
JECH
Examples of physical activity calorie equivalent labelling.
Specifically, when PACE labels appear on food, drinks and menus, people tend to select significantly fewer calories — an average of 65 fewer per meal — than when other types of labeling, including no labeling, is used.

The results were even stronger when PACE labeling was compared to no labeling alone. That analysis revealed people selected, on average, 103 fewer calories per meal.

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The comparison with no labeling is important, because the places where we eat or purchase high-calories foods and drinks — such as restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries — are not always required to indicate their products’ calorie counts.

The study’s findings suggest, Daley and her co-authors write, that PACE labeling could potentially lead the average person to consume about 195 fewer calories per day. The researchers also acknowledge, however, that the effect of the labeling might lessen over time (as it has with other types of labeling).

Limitations and implications

Like all studies, this one comes with caveats. Its analysis relied on a relatively small number of studies, and each was designed in a different way. (Some of the studies, for example, tested exercise equivalents that were displayed in miles walked or run rather than in minutes.)

More important, most of the studies were conducted in a laboratory, not in “real world” settings, such as restaurants and grocery stores. The choices consumers make in a hypothetical situation can be quite different from those they make in their everyday lives.

Still, given our ever-expanding obesity epidemic, it’s clear that new ideas are urgently needed to help people make healthier food choices.

This study’s findings underscore the promising potential of one of those ideas.

“PACE labelling is a simple strategy that could be easily included on food/beverage packaging by manufacturers, on shelving price labels in supermarkets and/or on menus in restaurants/fast-food outlets,” write Daley and her co-authors.

“When a consumer sees a visual symbol that denotes it will take 4 hours to walk off a pizza and only 15 min to burn off a salad, this in theory should create an awareness of the ‘energy cost’ of food/drink,” they add.

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FMI: You’ll find the study on the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health’s website.