New “Burn It Off” Public Health Campaign Is Bad Medicine
This week in problematic health news: The Royal Society for Public Health in the United Kingdom has called for food makers to add Physical Activity Calorie Equivalents or Expenditures (PACE) labels to their products.
So, instead of a chocolate bar nutrition label saying it has 229 calories, it would also need to list how many minutes of walking or running it would take to burn those calories off.
This recommendation is based on the recent work of some researchers out of Loughborough University in London who believe this info will actually help people curb their eating—to the tune of 200 calories a day. But focusing public health campaigns on food labels has at least one glaring problem: The very foods we need to eat more of don’t come with nutrition labels at all!
As a psychotherapist specializing in binge eating disorder and treating women with lifelong food and weight worries, this is not the first time I’ve heard this method of “motivation.” And it never works. A client of mine who was a mom of a teenage girl once told me that her daughter’s gym teacher had her class walk the length of the football field for the reward of a single M&M—to show them that it was how far they’d have to walk to burn one off.
Teaching kids, and the rest of us, about the nutritional value of packaged foods is fine, even important to do. But associating it with exercise turns the food into a “guilty pleasure” and associates exercise with punishment for eating! Those are two things you absolutely don’t want to do if you’re trying to get a whole country to eat more thoughtfully and move their bodies regularly.
The United States has been trying to outsmart the so-called “obesity epidemic” for years, spitting out a different version of the same message the Royal Society wants to send. All the while, some research shows that BMIs continue to rise. And rates of food obsession, orthorexia, and eating disorders do, too.
When our whole-body health is reduced to calories in and calories out, it doesn’t fix anything—we just get fatter and/or more “disordered!” When my clients, many of whom have been struggling with weight and disordered eating for decades, hear things like “an M&M will take 100 yards to burn off,” they think, “Then why bother with exercise at all?” If it takes so much to “earn” just one M&M, why even try?
But that misses the point! Health and wellness are about more than weight, more than calories in and calories out, more than rules, regulations, and metrics. They’re about balance, pleasure, nutrition, movement, and, for God’s sake, sanity.
One last thing that confounds the Royal Society’s recommendations: Exercise isn’t even a great method for weight loss. The surprising truth is that exercise may increase hunger in some people, making them eat more calories than they burned during the workout.
And as we can see from the above examples, the exercise burns very little of the total calories needed in a day. So why do we continue to associate exercise with weight instead of every other beautiful thing it does for us?
Let’s walk, run, bike, swim, or stretch to feel good, not to “earn” a treat or burn calories. When movement becomes part of your life, and you feel the real benefits, it becomes a habit or even a hobby—not a chore.