Will People Lose Weight if Labels Show How Long It Takes to Burn Off Calories?

Your choices might change if food packaging displays how long you’ll have to bike, swim, or run to maintain your size.
(Photo: Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images)
Jan 16, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s one thing to know how many calories a chocolate bar, bag of chips, or serving of mac and cheese contains but quite another to know how many minutes of exercise it would take to burn it off. Will it take 20 to 50 minutes? Even longer?

Adding that information to food and drink labels could help people avoid packing on the pounds, according to a policy paper published Friday by the Royal Society for Public Health. The British health agency found that introducing “activity-equivalent calorie labels” helps people stop underestimating how long it will take them to work off something they’ve eaten.

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The need for the labels certainly exists. Nearly 2 billion people worldwide are overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organization.

“Although nutritional information provided on food and drink packaging has improved, it is evident that it isn’t working as well as it could to support the public in making healthy choices,” said Shirley Cramer, the chief executive of the agency, in a statement. “Activity-equivalent calorie labeling provides a simple means of making the calories contained within food and drink more relatable to people’s everyday lives while also gently reminding consumers of the need to maintain active lifestyles and a healthy weight.”

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The health organization shared sample images of the labels, which show consumers how many minutes they’d have to bike, swim, or run if they choose to eat a particular item. People can then decide whether noshing on a bag of potato chips is worth 19 minutes of running, 23 minutes of cycling, or 13 minutes of swimming.

(Illustration: The Royal Society for Public Health)

A survey of 2,000 adults by the society found that 63 percent would support the introduction of activity-equivalent calorie labels. More than half of respondents said seeing the labels would change their behavior.

The public health experts wrote that a person spends about six seconds looking at a package before the item gets tossed in his or her shopping cart. Although some folks may be checking for sodium content or grams of fat, the researchers explained that a person is “most likely to look for total calories on food labels rather than other forms of nutritional information.” To take advantage of the focus on caloric intake, the organization recommends that food companies alter the front of packages so that consumers can make informed decisions.

(Illustration: The Royal Society for Public Health)