Do Food Labels Need Activity Icons?

From the WebMD Archives

April 7, 2016 -- A public health expert wants food labels to carry symbols showing how many minutes of several different activities are needed to burn off the calories, with the aim of helping people change their habits and countering obesity.

More than two-thirds of U.S. adults are considered to be overweight or obese, according to the National Institutes of Health.

And for now, labeling on food and drinks doesn’t help people make healthy changes in their lives, says Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society of Public Health in the U.K.

The society found in a public poll that 44% of people were confused by current information on the labels.

Research has found that we spend an average of 6 seconds looking at food before buying it, Cramer says in an article published in The BMJ. So labeling info needs to be understood within that length of time. Symbols are easier to understand than figures, she says, and activity symbols would be clearer to people who lack nutritional knowledge.

She has given an example of how the labeling could work: The calories in a can of soda take a person of average age and weight about 26 minutes to walk off. In another article, she describes a symbol of a person walking with the number 26, and the number 13 alongside a person running.

The society's poll found that 53% said they would positively change their behavior if this type of labeling appeared on food packaging. They would:

All of these choices could help against obesity.

People need to balance how many calories they eat or drink with the calories they expend -- focusing on diet or physical activity alone won't reduce obesity, Cramer says. Using activity icons would help promote a physical lifestyle.

She writes 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.”

Exercise has other health perks, too. It may boost mood, improve sleep quality, ease stress, and could lower the risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, research shows.

Still, concerns have been raised that activity symbols might have a negative effect on people with eating disorders, Cramer says. But those risks could be lowered by "working with groups who have concerns about the unintended effects of this information.”

She says it's still key to spread the word about the importance of healthy and varied eating, and we shouldn't expect to "outrun a bad diet."

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 07, 2016



The BMJ: "Food should be labelled with the exercise needed to expend its calories."

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