Food is not meant to be served with a side of guilt and shame
In among all the political furore, you may have missed the headlines calling for the amount of exercise required to ‘burn off’ a particular food to be brandished across the front of its packaging.
Physical Activity Calorie Equivalent (PACE) labels state how many minutes or hours you’d have to work out in order to work off the energy contained in that food. In other words X minutes walking or Y minutes running to negate the impact of the food you ate.
This type of packaging propagates the overly simplistic narrative that calories in equals calories out, and that weight is simply a matter of personal responsibility.
It belies the more than 100 complex genetic, environmental, biological and psychological determinants of body weight, most of which are beyond willpower. Yet the weight loss doctrine remains.
Side note: PACE labelling is endorsed by the Royal Society of Public Health, and Slimming World happen to have been one of their partners.
It seems too that researchers advocating PACE labels have conveniently forgotten about the six per cent (just under 4million) of the UK population who display signs of an eating disorder – roughly the same number of people who have type 2 diabetes.
Eating disorder experts, as well as those with active eating disorders, warn how these types of labels are extremely triggering, exacerbating symptoms across all eating disorder diagnoses.
In fact, research has also indicated that even among dieters and ‘restrained eaters’, calorie counts on menus can trigger emotional eating and loss of control around food.
We also cannot expect people to ‘make the right choice’, when our choices are so heavily constrained by our circumstances that we effectively have no choice.
By placing the onus on the individual to move more and eat less, we’re side stepping real socioeconomic and structural issues that prevent people from accessing exercise, nutritious food and other metrics of a higher quality of life.
No amount of food shaming from public health authorities addresses structural poverty. No amount of nutrition education on the health effects of sugary drinks negates the fact that in 2018-19, 1.6million emergency food packages were distributed via The Trussell Trust.
The Broken Plate report states that ‘the poorest 10 per cent of UK households would need to spend 74 per cent of their disposable income on food’ to meet the NHS’ Eatwell Guide costs. PACE labelling is effectively a band-aid for a gaping, bloody wound.
It’s clear, too, that the researchers have paid no regard whatsoever to the collateral damage caused by their ‘war on obesity’, having a single-minded focus on shrinking people’s bodies at all costs.
PACE labelling is not a new idea but it’s hit headlines because of a study from Loughborough University – which is actually a combination of 15 smaller studies – that showed that on average, PACE labelling could reduce calorie consumption by a total of 200kcal a day – the equivalent of about two tablespoons of peanut butter. This, they claim, will help people lose weight and reverse ‘obesity’.
But this is not actually what the study measured. The majority of the studies within the study were experimental: they were taking place in unrealistic settings, like laboratories, where external factors like cost, convenience, access and more could not be accounted for.
It also means that they can’t tell what happened to people’s weight in the long term. To be clear, the claims that PACE labelling can reduce ‘obesity’ rates are entirely hypothetical.
Yet by framing this as a ‘solution’ to higher weight bodies, we are contributing to a culture of fat shaming that we know increases the risk of physical and mental ill-health.
Contrary to popular belief, calories are not dangerous demons that hide inside your food – they are non-negotiable essentials for almost every function in our bodies. They’re not optional. We need energy to live, even if the only kind of marathon we participate is a movie marathon over Christmas.
Calorie counting is appealing because of its apparent simplicity, but it moves us away from the messages our own bodies are sending for hunger, fullness, satisfaction and what makes us feel well.
Reducing food down to calories and exercise equivalents not only tells us zero about the nutritional quality of a food, it misses the point that food doesn’t just nourish us physically.
Food is connection, celebration, tradition, comfort, and culture. It’s meant to be enjoyed without a side serving of shame, guilt and judgement.