I've been pondering this question ever since reading an article that public health officials in the UK want to start labeling foods with "activity equivalents." (1) While only a proposal at this stage, these depictions would let consumers know approximately the time and types of activity required to burn off the calories in the product being purchased. A box of biscuits might, for example, have a picture of a person walking for 60 minutes or swimming for 30 minutes to demonstrate the type of activity and length of time it would take to burn off the calories in one serving. With more than 2/3 of the population in the UK falling into the overweight or obese category, this might be a good step forward.
But it is? While at first glance this seems like another positive step in the labeling of our foods, stop and think for a minute why this proposal is arising in the first place. Despite the myriad of rules we have around labeling and manufacturing of foods, the public health campaigns on TV and in magazines, the education we get in our doctors' offices and in schools – we are not effectively combating the obesity epidemic. The article even states currently there is little evidence that the information provided on food products has had any significant impact on changing health behavior. Why is that?
I think on a gut level you know why that is. Marketing. The addictive qualities of salt, sugar and fat (Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss is a good read, by the way). Lack of time to prepare meals and incorporate exercise. Simple lack of health education, especially at an early age. The reasons are endless, and they vary for each person. The deck is stacked against us when it comes to healthy diet and lifestyle choices. While food labeling is helpful, it is not creating the impact that was hoped for.
Unfortunately I do not have any easy solutions to offer. Like anything, it takes hard work. In my case, I think about food and exercise every single day. And it's not just because I'm a Dietitian, although it does mean I'm reminded daily on the health risks related to poor diet and inactivity. In order to stay on top of what I eat and getting in daily movement, I have to plan it out. Yep, every single day I'm mentally recording what I plan to eat, where and when I'm going to exercise, and on top of that doing the same for my kids. It is a mindset that you prioritize, and I just don't think a few pictures depicting walkers and joggers on the side of a food label will catalyze that change, especially when the foods I and other health practitioners recommend generally aren't the ones with the crazy busy food labels!
While normally I am all for increased awareness and openness when it comes to labeling, I think this one might be an unnecessary burden on business, may actually increase confusion when it comes to reading the label (how much info can they fit on there anyway? ??), and generally be a giant waste of time. We need to get to real nuts and bolts of what creates behavior change, and as I said before, that is not a one-size-fits all approach.
So don't feel discouraged if you are one of the people struggling with long-term change. You are definitely not alone, and likely you just haven't hit the right messages and planning tools to kickstart that change for good. My recommendation? See a Registered Dietitian of course! Or if not an RD, at least someone with health expertise to help guide you on an individual level. While these mass campaigns to encourage health are helpful to some degree, most of us need more specific and tailored advice, especially when it comes to behavior changes that lasts. Make the time to meet with someone. Your health is worth it.
Lastly, I am curious to know, what do you think about new labeling suggestions? What, if anything, would be helpful for you to see on a label that is not already there? What do you find helpful in planning your day or reminding you to engage in healthy activities? What are the major barriers you have to implement a consistent plan? These are the questions each of us need to deal with on an individual level to come up with the solution that will work.