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The Perspective
The Perspective

May 2, 2016

Should food labels list the amount of exercise needed to burn off calories?

Daina Kalnins is the Director of Clinical Dietetics at The Hospital for Sick Children. Her clinical interests include Cystic Fibrosis and Lung Transplant.

It’s an out of the box concept that has healthy eating experts buzzing. Earlier this year, The Royal Society for Public Health in the UK released a policy paper proposing that food labels list hours of exercise needed to burn off calories in particular food.

At SickKids the reaction from dietitians was mixed – some thought it a good idea; others were adamant that it would not be beneficial, leading to more adverse behaviours around eating. I personally don’t like the idea – I think the information should be made available and communicated well, but not on food labels.  To get a teenager’s perspective, I asked my own kids, who are quite active in a variety of sports.  Both initially thought it was a neat idea, but with more consideration (I may have prompted that), felt that the labels may send the wrong message, especially if labelling were included on healthier food items – after all, their mom is a dietitian.  They pointed out that peanuts, or other nuts are a healthy food and while they know peanuts have calories, they are a great snack for them as athletes. Therefore, the calories in peanuts are not equal to those in a cinnamon bun, for example. My kids understand the difference, but they thought others might not.

Of course, the reason behind the proposed new activity equivalent labelling is obesity: 10 per cent of children aged 12 to17 years and about 25 per cent of adults are considered obese in Canada.  If you add overweight to the obesity numbers, then approximately 30 per cent of children and 60 per cent of adults are in an unhealthy body weight range. Obesity has known negative effects on health (and in turn, on our health-care dollars). Obesity also affects mental health, productivity and well-being.

In general, people consume too much sugar, salt and processed food, and too little fibre and fresh food. So what changes should be made so that consumers can make better food choices? There is no doubt that food messages are confusing and always changing: we hear about benefits of increasing certain vitamins, only to find out that they negatively affect some conditions; and we hear about how we should lower our fat intake, until it’s revealed that this has led to increased consumption of sugar – I saw that one coming! And the never-ending miracle foods that can somehow magically fix ailments of all types. No wonder ‘cleanses’ are a rage – they are advertised as a quick fix! In reality, the liver is perfectly capable of all cleansing provided the right foods are consumed daily, not just over a few hours or days.

As trained dietitians working in evidenced-based health-care institution such as SickKids, we offer our opinions on health claims and the latest miracle foods. And even though we may not always agree, our opinions are based on sound evidence, research and insight into how nutrition can support health and an illness state, promoting recovery. We advocate for healthy eating with a balanced approach –moderation is key! You will see us eating our chocolate and our chips, but this is balanced with a choice of meals and foods that are healthy, like salads, whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Labels alone will not help someone decide to be more active – at least in my opinion. I think we have to work more with the food industry to not deceive consumers into thinking that a food item is healthy when it’s not. We have to work harder at getting healthy eating messages out in schools, and to parents.

Here are some quick tips for healthy eating and exercise for families:

  • Water or milk should be main beverages of choice for kids- period. Juices can be mixed with unflavoured carbonated waters as another, less sugary choice.
  • Offer fresh, cut up vegetables and fruits daily. Don’t wait for kids to ask – just place them  in front of your kids when they are doing their homework, watching TV or on the computer. And limit those processed, unhealthier snack options. There are great recipes available online – just type in ‘best ever…’ and you will get a variety of meal and snack ideas that you can make with your kids.
  • Prepare meals with kids. Pick a recipe or two a week and make a list of top 10 meals that can be prepared quickly and easily. Some of our family’s favourites include:
    • Fish (grilled, or as tacos with mango salsa)
    • Homemade meat sauce/pasta with vegetables
    • Lentils/ beans mixed in salad
    • Burritos with chicken, lentils, beans, tofu
    • Chicken stir fry loaded with vegetables
    • Lettuce beef wraps
    • Vegetable soups with beans and tofu
    • Olives, feta,  hummus, tomato platters
    • Homemade burgers: turkey/chicken/beef
    • Shrimp and broccoli stir fry

With regards to activity, I would suggest that this would contribute to at least 50 % of the ‘obesity’ problem, in that kids and adults are just not active enough. And another ‘Perspectives’ can be devoted to that. Best advice on increasing activity?  Limit that screen time for both kids and parents, and get outside and enjoy activities with your kids. Set the example – small changes, a little at a time.

To healthy and happy eating and enjoying the outdoors and nature,

Daina