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Burning off calories (& food labels)

On 15 January 2016, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) called for the introduction of ‘activity equivalent’ calorie labelling on food and drink. Such labelling would show how much activity would be required to burn off the calories contained in the food or drink. But would it?!

The press release can be viewed here. The call was made in an attempt to help with “the UK’s growing obesity crisis.” According to the press release, the RSPH’s said of activity equivalent labelling: our “own research found two-thirds (63%) of people would support its introduction, with over half (53%) saying it would cause them to make positive behaviour changes such as choosing healthier products, eating smaller portions or doing more physical exercise.” (The RSPH kindly shared by email that the research undertaken involved 2,010 UK adults, aged 18+, surveyed online between 11th and 13th December 2015).

The full position paper is here. The RSPH ‘hopes’ that prominent pictorial icons, alongside front of pack information, would increase consumer awareness of both calories contained within the food/drink and the activity required to burn off those calories. The icons are illustrated in the full position paper. An example bag of crisps is shown with a picture of someone: running; cycling and swimming and the numbers say that these activities would need to be done for 19, 23 and 13 minutes respectively to burn off the 171 calories in this particular bag of crisps.

The problems

1) The first problem is that all of this is based on the calorie theory: the idea that, one pound of fat equals 3,500 calories and humans gain one pound if they have a 3,500 calorie excess and lose one pound if they have a deficit of 3,500 calories. None of this has been sourced, proven, explained – anything. It remains the biggest dieting myth ever invented and perpetuated by human beings.

2) The second problem is that calories are not equal. If we proceed on the correct assumption that calories are units of fuel, nothing to do with weight, we will be on safe ground. This video shows how most of the fuel requirement of the body is determined by basal metabolic rate (the fuel needed by the body if we lie in bed all day) and that this, almost entirely, needs to be met by fat and protein. Carbohydrate is for energy only (and fat can meet energy needs just as well, arguably better).

3) It follows from (2) that all carbohydrate that humans consume must be burned off with activity or it will be stored as fat. It cannot be used for anything else. This means that any activity equivalent label only needs to list carbohydrate calories. This is the fuel that needs to be burned off, or it will be stored as fat (in what ratio, we do not know – certainly not in the 3,500 calorie ratio).

To take an example, 100 grams of Mars Bar contains 17g of fat, 4g of protein and 70g of carbohydrate (the rest will be water). If someone eats 100g of Mars Bar, they need to use up 70g – approximately 280 calories worth – of carbohydrate fuel. The fat and protein can be used by the body for maintenance and repair.

4) This brings us to another problem. We cannot choose what we want the body to burn for fuel – the body mechanisms and physiological state decide this for us. If we eat the Mars Bar and start running at 5 miles per hour, the body will first use any glucose already available in the blood stream. After this? Who knows. Maybe glycogen stored from carbohydrate eaten in the past 24 hours, maybe glucose from the Mars Bar, maybe fat from the Mars Bar (instead of using this for cell repair/maintenance). Who knows? This whole calories in/calories out mythical thinking has led to a lot of erroneous assumptions about food, activity and weight. This initiative perpetuates a lot of this bad science.

5) Notwithstanding that only the carbohydrate calories need considering, the pictorial icons are wildly inaccurate and yet would be taken as accurate by most people. In the full position paper, page 4 has a guide as to how much medium walking vs. slow running a person would need to do to burn off the example foods shown.

The source for the information is this very rough calculator, which doesn’t take gender into account and is not very sensitive to age. I’ve reverse engineered a couple of examples and the numbers seem to be based on a 50 year old (male or female) weighing 76kg (nearly 12 stone). This person would, allegedly, use up 436 calories running slowly for 42 minutes (close to the 445 for the sandwich). Weighing 50 kg, I would need to run for 65 minutes to achieve the same – a 55% margin of error. Other, more accurate, calculators available suggest I may need to run at 5 miles an hour for over 75 minutes to burn off the sandwich.

6) Problem six logically follows three, four and five above: the body needs to burn off all carbohydrate daily, not just snacks consumed. If this labelling route is a good idea, it should apply to every food containing carbohydrate, from fruit to lentils to yoghurt to brown rice.

Government guidelines advise consuming 55% of calorie intake in the form of carbohydrate. I would need to run for three solid hours to burn that off, even before starting the running needed to burn off any extra snacks!

7) Problem seven is huge and not widely known. I wrote about this in a blog in 2010. We don’t use up as much energy as we think. Exercise calculators take into account BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). Hence, if watching TV requires 68 cals an hour (this is the calculation for a 140lb/10 stone person) and moderate walking burns 200 calories an hour (for the same person), then going for a walk should be viewed as the additional energy needed beyond doing nothing (i.e. 130 calories in this case). Some slimming plans encourage “treats for activity” e.g. jog for 20 minutes, have a (say) 200 calorie confectionery bar. It is quite UNlikely that someone would use 200 calories in 20 mins jogging above what they would need anyway pottering around the house or being at work.

8) Problem eight is that this is music to the ears of the fake food industry. Sure, they won’t like having to change labels if this becomes mandatory, but they would like to make portions smaller, to reduce ‘burn off’ times, while keeping the price the same, to boost profit. This is essentially what has been happening with the government (IR)responsibility deal.

9) The final problem is the same one encountered by all of these different initiatives by different organisations – the opportunity cost of what could be done instead. Instead of going to all this effort hoping that adding complex and inaccurate pictures to every fake food product will encourage people to avoid, or burn off, junk, why not advise people not to have the junk in the first place?

When people ask for my views of traffic light, or other labelling, schemes my response is always the same – our labelling policy should be simple: don’t eat anything that requires a label. Why is it so difficult for public health bodies to simply come out and say “Eat real food”!

No doubt the RSPH initiative is well intentioned, albeit without any evidence that it would have an impact. Sadly it suffers from so many flaws, I cannot see any good coming from good intentions. Well meaning “Eat real food” messages would be far simpler and more effective, yet somehow seem to escape the mind set of public health bodies.

14 thoughts on “Burning off calories (& food labels)

  • “…all carbohydrate that humans consume must be burned off with activity or it will be stored as fat. It cannot be used for anything else.”

    I know this article is a few years old but it was linked to a FB article so I thought I would comment. The above quote is not entirely correct under circumstances of heavy exercise. With intense exercise, there can be substantial depletion of muscle and liver glycogen. The human body may store somewhere around 2500 kcal worth of glycogen, on average. Carbohydrates consumed post-exercise can help restore muscle and liver glycogen stores and would not necessarily be stored as fat.

  • You’re up against it when you see messages like this (found on the BBC World Service website today). I gasped out loud (and may even have let an expletive slip) at the first line.

    “Potatoes, Bread, Rice and Cereals – these starchy foods are not fattening unless you cook or serve them with fat. In fact these foods give you energy for all the activities of your daily life. They should definitely form the main part of most meals, and preferably, every meal.”

    Most people I know think fat makes you fat and bread is a real food. I work in a public health arena and I do despair, but please keep going with your message, it’s gathering momentum every day and I keep challenging too. We’ll get there

  • I used to think that “eat real food” was the best admonition to make. After thinking about what this means, though, I’m not sure what this means. Back in my low fat days, I ate oats for breakfast, pasta and sauce for lunch, and brown rice and beans (with salsa) for dinner. For snacks, I’d have rice cakes or other low fat fare. I’d assume that most or all of this is “real food”, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone actually eat like this.

    In my current low carb days, I eat butter (use it to add fat calories to meat and vegetables and to cook with). To me, milk is a “real food”, but butter is a processed food. Similarly, I eat home-made mayonnaise made with olive oil or avocado oil. To me, both of these oils are processed foods (the olives and the avocados are the “real food”), and mayo is even more processed.

    So, I get confused as to what “real food” really is. What is it?

    Perhaps we mean “don’t eat packaged food”? But I still eat packaged food: bacon, ham, processed meats (yes, still!), condiments (hot sauce, soy sauce, pickles), fermented foods (sauerkrauts, kimchi, other fermented foods), etc.

    Plus, aren’t bananas, grapefruit, potatoes, and the like “real food”? But I avoid all of these (other than the occasional (cold) potatoes, for its resistant starch), as they have too many carbs for me.

    After thinking about this for a while, I don’t really have any idea what we mean by “eat real food”.

    • Bob, you make some excellent points. One the one hand, we all know what junk food is because it’s usually heavily processed and full of sugar. But you’re right that many things I don’t eat such as bananas, potatoes and rice are real foods, but foods I do eat such as butter, cream and olive oil are processed to some degree. However, they tend to be minimally processed and use natural products.

      The principle of real food is good in many ways, but you expose its limitations.

      I do think labelling has a purpose in helping people avoid sugar and carbs. I try not to buy things in packets, but occasionally buy chicken in bacon, but I still want to know they haven’t filled it out with sugar. We have to be realistic that busy people will sometimes buy something in a tray, but it can be lousy or okay. The label helps me. I’d like to see much clearer labelling on drinks and tinned food, which are often packed with sugar. Most people haven’t a clue how much sugar is in tinned soup or beans. A big spoon symbol with a number of teaspoons of sugar for the contents of the whole tin would help. The food industry says this might be confusing, which is a hoot and shows how complicit they are. I wonder how they sleep at night? In silk sheets, probably. Grams of sugar means very little to most people.

  • Just one point – you say that it is only carbs we need to worry about. Unfortunately many type 2 diabetics have to take into account protein as well. Certainly the ratio of protein to fat, to prevent protein spiking blood glucose levels, and I suspect this would effect insulin resistant people as well. Otherwise, I WISH people would listen to this. Katie Hopkins is busy creating the next lot of unhealthy people who will find themselves facing problems ten years from now, when she has got bored with them and moved onto something else….

    • Hi Jessica
      I completely agree. This was a revelation to me at a conference recently when I sat next to a T2D who declined chicken (fatty skins and all) because the protein was too high.
      I didn’t mention it in this article as this was about the RSPH initiative on labels and burning off calories. Protein doesn’t need to be burned off – indeed it would be the last choice for the body to use for fuel – it may need to be avoided for insulin impact, but that’s a different story.
      Many thanks for the flag for comment readers though :-)
      Best wishes – Zoe

  • Another excellent blog Zoë! Read through the “position” paper – with difficulty because it is so full of BS.

    Why anyone would think that introducing “calorie activity labelling” will make any more difference that the “traffic light” crap that has proved to be such a failure is beyond me. Dr Jeans and Tom have already nailed two of the problems. We have to remove any influence of the food and agricultural industries and their bought academic and research shrills and get back to hard science. Nor should we forget that these industries are aided and abetted by the very organisations that should protect us from them. Unfortunately the massive financial influence of the food and agricultural industries make that very unlikely in the foreseeable future.

    A vast majority of people, and almost certainly anyone who is overweight (ignoring those that really do not care that they are overweight), do not understand food and how our bodies utilise it. There are those that can’t be bothered to do a little research and rely upon the government etc. to advise them (big mistake) and those that do care, but are misled by fundamentally unsound advice from sources such as the RSPH, NHS, diabetic associations and of course those “good health” websites that are really just marketing fronts and shrills for the food and agricultural industries.

    I’m sure there are those within the RSPH and other bodies that do have good intentions but clearly the people deciding upon what is published are as clueless as the people they are attempting to advise. I am so fed up with the calories in calories out myth. It is far too simplistic and leads some people to view our bodies in much the same way as the fuel tank of a car. Far more important than calorie count is the composition of the food and that alone has a far greater impact on what happens to the food once it is consumed. It would not harm to provide a little information about the influence of insulin and leptin (especially for confused diabetics). Unfortunately going down that path would rapidly lead far away from the processed rubbish that is pumped out by the food industry so don’t hold your breath.

    As you say, if it requires a label don’t buy it. It really is very simple but for the past 40 plus years a majority of the population have been increasingly conditioned to think of junk “food” as real food and really do not understand the difference. Even if they do we come up again the deterioration in the quality of real food (even some organic) resulting from modern production techniques but that is another story.

    I’m thankful that people such as yourself provide ample information to those that do care – you must feel like you are banging your head against a wall at times.

    • Hi Barry
      I do – many thanks for your kind words of support!
      Best wishes – Zoe

      • I’ve been rereading a whole bunch of old blogs, currently Michael Eades (Protein Power) and am around the time Gary Taubes book was launched.

        It’s truly scary that since then there has been an absolute AVALANCHE of competent scientific research which has had absolutely no effect on what it still being fed to us as advice, and to doctors as “Evidence-Based” medicine. In fact The Powers That Be are becoming if anything even more shrill and desperate.

        Seen this?

        • Hi Chris
          Michael Eades did a fab presentation at the LCHF conference ( – when the science is so overwhelming, why on earth do people hang on to the status quo?! That’s the question we have moved on to…
          Best wishes – Zoe

          • In a word, MONEY. Farmers are forced to sell their wheat well below its cost of production in some years, dairy in pretty much all years, and now pork takes a hit. Carbs get a massive mark-up as they can be slapped with a LOW FAT!!! label. Then you need drugs for life to deal with the side effects of the diet, and more drugs to deal with the side effects of the first drugs. And the wheel turns.

            Not to mention all the careers that have been made from espousing Conventional Wisdom.

            There’s a rapidly expanding movement including more and more patients of all kinds, members of the “fitness community” and a small but growing number of doctors and researchers, working from the bottom up and meeting a wall of money coming from the top down.

  • Zoe as usual you nail the hard facts to them. Needless to say that govt. & food industry lobbyists are still too intertwined for good analytical nutrition science to impact at this stage at that level. I do believe though that the hearts & minds battle is making headway with the public / our patients. Keep up the noise …… People are listening!!

  • ‘Why is it so difficult for public health bodies to simply come out and say “Eat real food”!’

    Are you nuts? Where’s the profit in that???

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