We know junk food is bad for us; decades of Jamie Oliver crusades and government anti-obesity ads have got that point across. But researchers at Loughborough University think we could nonetheless do with a more frequent reminder, in the form of labels slapped onto the packaging of unhealthy food, telling us exactly how much exercise we'd need to do to burn off the calories contained within.
Critics have argued that guilt-tripping people into eating less perhaps isn't the healthiest way to solve the obesity crisis, and pointed out that each body needs a different amount of calories per day, meaning the blanket "PACE" (physical activity calorie equivalent) labels would oversimplify what's really a more nuanced situation.
Still! Just how much exercise would you need to do to burn off some of Britain's favourite junk food?
To find out, I lined up four popular foods-that-are-bad-for-you – fish and chips, a box of 20 spicy chicken nuggets and fries, a Domino's pizza and a fuck-off bag of Minstrels – and recruited some of London's hardest men to put me through physical hell until I'd burned it all off
LARGE PORTION OF FISH & CHIPS – 900 CALORIES
To Sutton & Sons, a London chippy so good it's been nominated for an award at "The National Fish & Chips Awards 2020".
I got a large portion of cod and chips, which worked out at about 600 calories for the cod and 300 for the chips. That sounds like a lot, but fish and chips are basically a health food, are they not? Famously lots of Omega 3 in fish, and chips – if you weren't aware – are made from a vegetable called the potato.
For the calorie bonfire I travelled to MCP – a gym in an old underground car park in Victoria, which looks like the sort of place Batman would work out – to meet up with Ben John, a personal trainer and ex-professional rugby player who had the broken nose and calm yet authoritative voice of someone who could lay you out flat just breathtakingly quickly.
My workout was a 45-minute-long, uninterrupted circuit of: pulling a weighted sled down the hall with a rope; resistance bike stuff; carrying a big keg down the hall; this weird machine that made you do skiing motions; and a good, old-fashioned jog up and down a hill.
At first – much like you feel laying your eyes upon a large portion of chips – everything was quite exciting. But by the end – much like you feel after eating a large portion of chips – everything had become repetitive, draining and physically demanding, to the point that I began to feel quite ill.
Exercise: A continuous circuit of two weighted moves, two exercise machines and an uphill run.
Calories in: 900.
Calories out: 950.
Was it worth it? I love fish and chips, so yes.
A SHARE BAG OF MINSTRELS – 600 CALORIES
Normally, I love to eat Minstrels, as a treat. I love to gently crack open their shells and suck on the soft chocolate inside. It makes me feel nice. Which is to say: I've never eaten them at 6AM, while it's still dark and raining outside, accompanied by a black coffee I need to get me through the run I'm about to do.
As for the run? Well, you know what running is like: a deeply unpleasant experience characterised by lots of heavy breathing; you lolloping around, embarrassed, as you pass people you are just walking normally; and a worrying and maybe dangerous (?) feeling somewhere in the cavern between your lungs and heart.
Exercise: Jogging for as long as I could hack it.
Calories in: 600.
Calories out: 380.
Was it worth it? Let me ask you that out loud: was it worth forcing down a big bag of Minstrels with a black coffee at 6AM, when it was still dark outside, then running around a park until I physically couldn't run any more because of the pain in my knees?
20 SPICY CHICKEN McNUGGETS – 967 CALORIES
Confession time: my usual McDonald's order is two double cheeseburgers, two large fries and a share box of 20 McNuggets. Another confession: my editor wanted me to eat a Big Mac for this article, but when I saw that Maccies (slang for "McDonalds") was doing the spicy McNuggets I chose my own calorific path (FYI: there are about 560 calories in a Big Mac).
After eating them quicker than I probably should have, I headed to 12x3, a posh boxing gym, to work up a sweat with a personal trainer called Jay Revan, who has the smile, tattoos and ultra-shredded body of a future Love Island winner.
Doing "pads", where you just punch hand pads for three straight minutes, doesn't sound like it would be that bad. You – the you who has RSI in your thumb from scrolling through your phone so much – probably think you could breeze it. But I'm afraid to say: you are wrong.
Boxing, and especially pads, is the most strenuous activity I think I've ever done. I would have never imagined how quickly your lungs fill with acid and your shoulders feel like bowling balls – literally a minute or less. So imagine, if you will, doing that for 50 minutes straight.
Exercise: 12 rounds of boxing.
Calories in: 960.
Calories out: 900.
Was it worth it? Hard to call, because it really was excruciating – but also spicy nuggets are so delicious. So I think I'm going to say: yes, it was.
DOMINO'S AMERICAN HOT PIZZA (MEDIUM, NORMAL CRUST AND NO DIP, BECAUSE JESUS, HAVE YOU SEEN THE CALORIES IN THOSE CUNTS? IT'S OUT OF CONTROL) – 1,448 CALORIES
I've lost count of the number of morning-after Domino's I've eaten, and started wilfully ignoring the amount of calories they contain years ago because I know it's essentially: fucking loads. On the website, the American Hot calorie counter tops out at three slices (181 per slice = 543 calories), which is presumably the recommended daily allowance. But the website is lying to itself and every Domino's customer potentially in the world?
Because, as I do every time I order Domino's, I wolfed the whole thing down myself within about six minutes.
To burn that off, I concocted an endless loop of exercise bike, treadmill and rowing machine at my local gym, counting 200 calories per exercise on the display, until I reached 1,500.
It was then that I realised just how long it takes to burn this kind of food off. I was alternating between the three machines for about an hour and 20 minutes before I'd managed to hit 1,000 calories.
Exercise: Alternating between treadmill, exercise bike and rowing machine for as long as humanly possible.
Calories in: 1,500.
Calories out: 1,000.
Why are you doing this to yourself? I don't even know anymore.
Total calories in: 3,960.
Total calories burned: 3,230.
Calorie surplus: 730.
As I tortured myself endlessly over the course of a week, I had a lot of time to think about Loughborough Uni's PACE label recommendations. And in summary: they're not great.
Granted, I'm sure they would work, to a degree – the study says as much, noting that, on average, people who saw PACE labels chose lower calorie options than those who didn't. But they would also be deeply problematic for a number of reasons.
Like many living a relatively comfortable middle class life, I have a "feast and famine" relationship with not just food, but what I put into my body in general. I tend to "let myself go", especially over the summer or during Christmas, when I'll binge-eat, drink and take drugs to excess. Shortly after will follow a period of bitter physical and psychological recrimination, where I punish myself with very little food and twice daily workouts.
What this kind of food labelling does, subliminally, is encourage this kind of thinking and behaviour – which, speaking from personal experience, really, really sucks.
This is before you consider that, for many disabled people, the kind of activity needed to burn off a pizza or a bag of chocolate is near-impossible. Slapping these kinds of labels on that food would only serve to alienate people for whom 12 rounds on the punch pads is out of the question.
More than anything, the labels would reduce all food – and exercise – to a zero-sum game, sucking the enjoyment out of what should be one of life's few regular joys. As someone who used to count the calories in foodstuff like red onions at the peak of what, looking back, was not necessarily disordered eating, but definitely an unhealthy obsession with weight loss, I know how dangerous it can be to reduce all food and exercise into numbers. It makes you obsess over every bite, which – as if I have to tell you – is ultimately a harmful way to live your life.