Good Idea, Wrong Approach

The lack of education about how our bodies work is astounding, but not surprising. However, after reading the articles today on how some experts are suggesting that equivalent exercise time should be added to food labels, my eyebrows are beginning to rise with suspicion.

Their idea is simple and noble. Put a number (say, 20 minutes) and a picture of an activity (let’s go jogging!) on the label of a food item. This easy to decipher image will tell the person that if they eat that food, it will take 20 minutes of jogging to get rid of the calories. In theory it sounds great. People can stay in shape by simply figuring out time required to burn off calories after eating different foods. In practice, I’m quite frankly confused how the proposal has made it this far since there are several scientifically crippling problems with it. I’ve listed a few below in no particular order.

Why can't someone ever say that they get 70.4 mpgm (miles per gallon of margaritas)?
Why can’t someone ever say that they get 70.4 mpgm (miles per gallon of margaritas)?

The Digestion Process. An example of this process and how it relates to exercise is to write down the serial number from a twenty dollar bill, and then deposit this bill at your bank. A few hours later, go back to the bank and withdraw twenty dollars. I guarantee that you are not getting the same bill back. Despite people who say things like “Candy bars go straight to my thighs so I’m going to go get on the Stairmaster”, your body doesn’t work that way either. You are not withdrawing the same calories you just deposited, even if it is the same total amount.

It takes at least 6 hours for food to be processed by the stomach and begin to move to the small intestine. The total digestion process can take up to 72 hours depending on the type of food, size of the meal and other variables. So it’s safe to say that eating a cookie and jumping on a treadmill is not going to eliminate the cookie from your body. In fact, it probably won’t even be fully processed into chyme yet. Not many people are going to save labels from 3 days ago to see what they ate when planning their trips to the gym. This alone eliminates a major reason to have the labels in the first place.

Food Mixing. The labels tend to suggest that you can pick foods to “work off”. Not only is this impossible, it does not make any sense if one considers digestion. I personally know people who will not eat certain foods if they touch certain other foods on their plates. Meanwhile, all those foods mix together in their stomach (I always wonder if they know this or just put it out of their minds). If you eat a 1000 calorie dinner and then have a 300 calorie dessert, you cannot selectively exercise off the dessert only. Given the fact that whatever you eat becomes mixed up with whatever else you’ve eaten, the plan for labels only works if a person eats one food item at a time. This is not very likely nor is it practical for most people.

Calories Are Energy. The idea that avoiding calories is how one stays in shape has created its own set of problems in our society. As a trainer, I’m constantly explaining to people that calories are not evil. If we don’t consume calories, we die. It’s as simple as that. To operate our body’s systems, we need a certain number of calories per day. And if you didn’t know, calories really don’t have anything directly to do with food. They’re simply a measure of the energy contained within food. I can easily measure food energy in joules, watts or even BTUs and nothing about the food itself would change.

Some of my clients have had problems with fatigue and getting run down easily. Once they took my advice and ate more food, those issues magically disappeared. But it shows how deep the fear of calories runs in some of us. They’d opted to be exhausted with the sniffles than eat an extra 500 calories per day. Calories are consumed to be utilized in keeping the body healthy, not burned off in fear. How is an exercise requirement label going to help eliminate that confusion? If anything, I predict it will cause even more anti-calorie rhetoric.

Weight Is A Useless Measure. Weight means nothing, unless you tell me what you’re weighing. Take a 6’6 300lb man at 15% body fat, a 5’7 120lb woman at 39% body fat and a 4’9 90lb kid at 21% body fat. Each of these people are going to look very different from each other and have varied dietary requirements. The reason is that a pound of muscle and a pound of fat have radically different densities and energy demands. The loss of 5 lbs of muscle will look very different than the loss of 5 lbs of fat.

Obesity and weight control have been mentioned as a reason for moving ahead with the labels. Nowhere was body fat mentioned at all. Body fat is the far more accurate indicator of certain conditions and diseases, not weight. Simply weighing 270 lbs does not automatically make a person obese, the same way weighing 110 lbs does not automatically mean one is in good health. A person who cuts calories and loses 10 pounds of muscle is actually worse off as their body fat percentage has gone up rather than down! Knowing what you’re weighing is the most important factor as it pertains to general fitness and appearance. I hope the labels address this as it would be a much needed departure from the weight-obsessed mindset in existence today.

Where’s The Resistance? I’m sure the labels are not in their finished state, but I did not see anything which indicated that resistance training could be used as a method of utilizing calories. Muscle consumes calories and muscle that is stimulated during a workout continues to consume those calories even after you stop exercising. With cardio, you effectively stop burning when you stop moving (not counting EPOC). To me, the lack of resistance training as a method of utilizing calories seems to indicate that people who actually exercise on a regular basis and those that study the human body in depth were not consulted (or their suggestions were unfortunately disregarded).

Didn't we go over that earlier?
Didn’t we go over that earlier?

Since I loathe when people complain without offering solutions, I have a few that may help the creators of this labeling system. I’ll list them below:

Caloric Density. Showing caloric density, which is the number of calories per unit of weight, is a much better indicator of how filling a food will be. This can help those who both need to increase their calorie count (runners, physically active people, etc) and those who need to limit it (mobility limited individuals, sedentary workers, etc)

Nutritional Density. The amount of nutrients per unit of weight. This is important as it shows how healthy a food is.

Useful Calorie Ratio. The ratio of useful to “empty” calories contained within the food. Junk foods have far more empty than useful calories while healthier foods are at the other end of the spectrum.

While those are only three solutions, I could probably think of a few more over the next few days. And I’m sure that others out there may have other suggestions. I’d like to make it clear that the current nutritional labels are a complete mess and not the easiest to understand for many. Anything to simplify and clarify would be a welcome improvement. However, it should not be done without consideration for the actual factors that affect our bodies. Overall, anything we can do to help educate people about how their bodies work is more important than telling them to workout more or eat less. We are all different and that solutions that attempt to help based on a fictional ideal will never work well in the real world.

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About the Author: Christopher Williams