What if you knew a cookie would take 20 minutes to run off?

Health. Some experts say labeling foods with "exercise calories" empowers people to make better choices. But critics say this could reinforce negative attitudes about exercise as a punishment for eating.

31 Jan 2020 | 06:30

(AP) Would you put down that bag of chips if you saw it had 170 calories? What if the label said it would take 16 minutes of running to burn off those calories?

Health experts for years have pushed for clearer food labeling to empower people to make better choices. In the U.S., a recent regulation requires calorie counts on packages to be bigger. Red, yellow and green labels signal the healthfulness of some foods in the United Kingdom. But with obesity rates persistently high, researchers are looking at whether more drastic approaches could help.

One attention-grabbing idea being explored: Labeling foods with "exercise calories,'' or the amount of physical activity needed to burn them off. For example, a chocolate bar might say it has 230 calories, alongside icons indicating that amounts to 42 minutes of walking or 22 minutes of running. With calorie counts, experts worry the information doesn't mean much if people don't know how much they should be eating anyway. And with the "traffic light'' system, people might not understand why a food is red -- is it the fat, the sugar or something else?

It's no surprise some people don't pay attention to current labels, but exercise calories might be more useful, said Amanda Daley, a professor of behavioral medicine at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom.

"They may still ignore it, but let's give it a go," she said. Let's at least give them a chance to be able to easily understand,'' she said.

Not everyone finds the idea compelling. Regardless of whether it gets people to eat less, it could reinforce negative attitudes about exercise, said Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa.

"The idea that exercise is a punishment for eating does not strike me as a good way to promote exercise or healthy attitudes around food,'' he said.

Instead of trying to find a label that can finally persuade people to stop eating unhealthy foods, Freedhoff said it would be better to promote environments where it's easier to make good choices. For now, it's unknown how exercise-time labeling would affect choices in the real world.

Recently, a BMJ journal published an analysis co-authored by Daley reviewing the limited research so far. The review suggested it may lead people to pick lower-calorie items than no labeling at all. But the evidence was less clear when comparing exercise calorie labeling to specific alternatives like calorie counts alone. The concept may seem too drastic to ever become reality.

But Brian Elbel, a New York University public health expert who studies calorie counts on menus, said other measures -- such as soda taxes -- also once seemed far-fetched.

"Just because it's not going to happen tomorrow doesn't mean it's not an important thing to look at,'' Elbel said.

Calories to burn:
To burn 100 calories: Walk at a slow pace for 36 minutes or push a stroller for 30 minutes, says Best Health Magazine. Using trekking poles reduces the time to 27 minutes. 100 calories equals about one and a half chocolate chip cookies.
To burn 500 calories: Cross-country ski for 48 minutes or do Zumba for 57 minutes, says Breaking Muscle magazine about people who weigh 140 pounds. These activities take 38 and and 44 minutes, respectively, for a person who weighs 180 pounds. 500 calories equals about two glazed donuts.
To burn 1,000 calories: If you bicycle at a leisurely pace, it will take you hours to burn this much, says Livestrong. But pick up the pace to 16 to 19 mph and you could burn 1,000 calories in 56 to 83 minutes, depending on your weight. Bicycling on hilly terrain cuts the time down even further. 1,000 calories equals three to four slices of pizza .
To burn 3,500 calories: You'll need to burn about 3,500 calories to lose one pound, according to the Mayo Clinic. But this is best managed over the course of a week. If you're determined to do it in a day, try long-distance backpacking, which burns about 440 calories an hour for a 160-pound adult, according to Backpackers Pantry. Through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail typically hike eight hours in a day, according to REI. In fact, the average through-hiker loses an average of 30 pounds during their journey and faces severe calorie deficiencies, REI says. During a typical Thanksgiving meal, the average American takes in from 3,000 to 4,500 calories, according to Consumer Reports.
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