Bad Idea: Labels Explaining How Much Exercise Burns Off Calories In Soda

New research says displaying the amount of time you’d need to jog in order to burn off the calories in a sugary drink may be more effective at dissuading consumption than traditional calorie counts. Ugh. This is a bad idea for so many reasons—but mainly, it just perpetuates the myth that maintaining health and weight is just a simple calorie tradeoff. News flash: You can’t erase the crap you eat or drink by putting in time on an between exercise machine.

Nutrition and physical activity aren’t a simple pay-in, pay-out system. Exercise has health benefits—including to our mental health—independent of diet and weight (which is why it’s still important for those of us who are skinny and eat well to exercise, much as we might be inclined to forget about it because we aren’t worried about the size of our thighs). And what you eat and drink effects you in ways exercise can’t “burn off.” You can exercise off calories, but you can’t exercise back nutrients that are essential to health. And you can’t really exercise out the sugar, preservatives and other things in a diet full of soda and junk food (besides which, the amount of calories actually burned jogging depends a lot on your overall body weight, intensity, etc., making the calories in/exercise time equation not even terribly useful or accurate).

Briana pointed out labels like these could also serve as an eating disorder trigger, fostering even more unhealthy thinking in women (and men) already prone to obsess over diet or exercise, while making little difference to people who already don’t pay attention to nutrition facts or labels.

And let’s not forget the fact that we need calories—and will burn a certain amount of calories off doing daily activities anyway. Eating an adequate amount of daily calories from nutritious sources is important for brain and body health. You can exercise, eat healthy and never worry about counting calories. You can drink a lot of 0-calorie diet soda, never exercise, and be unhealthy.

This soda-label study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, looked at Baltimore teenagers and how different beverage-aisle signs (displaying either calorie count, calorie count as a percentage of recommended daily calorie intake, or time you’d need to spend jogging to burn off those calories) affected the amount of sodas or other sugary drinks they purchased. Calorie conversion to exercise minutes signs were the most effective, though all the signs led to fewer purchases.

“In general, people are very bad at estimating the amount of calories in food they consume,” said study researcher Sara Bleich, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If we give them easy ways of examining it … I think we can be effective in reducing calories in purchases.”

But the study was conducted in teenagers; I don’t think that should stand in as a model for adult behavior. And dumbing-down nutrition, diet and fitness by emphasizing calorie/exercise tradeoffs doesn’t serve anybody (except maybe gyms and trainers?). The minutes-of-exercise per soda (or whatever food/drink) dichotomy—on labels, and in general (comments about needing to run, go to the gym or restrict calories in order to ‘compensate’ for some particular indulgence are common)—may discourage soda purchases in teenagers, but that doesn’t mean it’s a step in the right direction.

I think weakening the links between exercise and calorie-burning would be better for public health. Seeing food as something to be indulged in and compensated for, and exercise as a chore or punishment for bad dietary choices (instead of essential to health independent of diet), is the kind of mindset that spawns bad food habits, eating disorders, crazy diets and the increasingly dysfunctional relationship in America between food and health.

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