Tips for How to 'Work off' Calories Don't Belong on Food (Or Anywhere)

A study showed this tactic led to people consuming less, but that’s because this framing encourages disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Woman grocery shopping olives read label
Photo by Aja Koska via Getty Images

Everyone’s relationship to food is different, which means that there’s no quick, universal fix to developing eating habits that support a healthy body and mind. A research report that looking at the findings of 14 studies, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, offers one solution, at least for the former: “physical activity calorie equivalent food labelling,” or labels on food that describe the amount of exercise required to burn the amount of calories contained therein. Researchers found that across the studies analyzed, these labels were more effective in reducing food consumption than traditional calorie labels or unlabeled food. On the revelation that people thinking about the exercise they’ll “need” to do later eat less, anyone who’s ever dealt with disordered eating could respond: “No fucking shit.”


When it comes to talking about food, there are some pretty obvious things to avoid, including language that feeds (sorry, punny!) directly into the mentality wherein food is “earned,” and eating less is always the goal… which is exactly the kind of mindset this kind of “nutrition labeling” promotes. The idea that food requires penance in the form of exercise is a pervasive cultural myth, and is incredibly harmful. Personal trainers buy domains like to promote their work; news outlets run stories about how long it takes to “burn off” Chipotle, sushi, and potato chips; companies promote workouts on Thanksgiving, presumably to balance out all of the time your fat ass was, uh, spending time sharing food with loved ones. Equating eating more calories or weight gain with poor health without qualification is patently false, and hyper-focusing on diet and exercise as a punitive balancing act is pretty much a one-way ticket to Eating Disorder City.

The food labeling report positions its results as a good thing, and positions physical activity calorie equivalent labels as a positive step to “encourage healthier food choices and reduce disease,” but in reality this measure encourages a corrosive line of thought. Messaging around food that implicitly encourages disordered eating is everywhere. Celebrities talk about how amazing they feel (and look!) after completing their latest aggressively-low-calorie cleanse or water fast, and influencers promote unrealistic dietary and lifestyle habits in the name of wellness. We don’t need researchers to slap more of this guilt and shame onto the fuel we literally all need to consume in order to stay alive.

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