Exercise advice on food labels 'triggering' for people with eating disorders

A new study has claimed that telling people how much exercise they need to do to burn off food and drink could encourage people to make healthier choices.

The findings suggest that exercise advice could be more effective than simply listing the calories.

Physical activity calorie equivalent or expenditure (Pace) food labelling tells people how many minutes of exercise they would need to do to burn off the calories in a particular product.

The Royal Society for Public Health has called for Pace labelling to replace the current system, which just lists calories and nutritional content.

The authors said current labels only have a limited effect on changing eating behaviours because many people don’t understand the meaning of calories or fat levels in terms of energy balance.

However, mental health advocate Hope Virgo – who had anorexia from the age of 13 – says the proposal is ‘dangerous’ and could have huge implications for people who have or are recovering from an eating disorder.

‘It is appalling,’ Hope tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Extremely triggering for people with eating disorders, yes, but it also goes wider than this.

‘We are creating a society terrified of food and feeling hungry. I was obsessed with exercise with my eating disorder and it was something I had to do all the time. It nearly killed me.

‘Plus, people with obesity might have an eating disorder and we are not taking in to account that in the slightest, but often just assuming they are lazy. We need to educate people more broadly on this.’

The researchers – from Loughborough University – say the new labelling system could shave off up to around 200 calories per person each day on average, if widely applied.

They say this could help prevent obesity, as regular over-consumption of small amounts of calories is a key contributing factor.

But Hope is convinced – from personal experience – that this kind of system could be really harmful for vulnerable people.

‘If I saw this in a shop I would get panicked and anxious,’ she adds. ‘We learn the calories of everything, imagine if we then learnt the amount exercise we need to do for everything we eat.

‘We are all different sizes too, so surely we all need to do different amounts of exercise.’

The authors said the effects of Pace labelling could vary according to context, with marketing, time constraints and price all likely to affect choices.

‘Public health agencies may want to consider the possibility of including policies to promote (it) as a strategy that contributes to the prevention and treatment of obesity and related diseases,’ wrote the authors.

‘We welcome this new research which builds the case for introducing activity equivalent food labelling,’ adds Duncan Stephenson, deputy chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health.

‘Our own research showed that using this type of labelling did make people think twice about the calories they were consuming, and when compared with other forms of labelling, people were over three times more likely to indicate that they would undertake physical activity.

‘We would like to see further research to test if the effect on calorie consumption is sustained when Pace labelling is applied in other settings such as restaurants and supermarkets.’

If you need to talk to somebody about your mental health or concerns about an eating disorder contact BEAT Charity: 0808 801 0677.

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