Food Labels Linking Calories to Exercise 'Could Cut Obesity'

Peter Russell

December 11, 2019

Labelling food and drink with how much exercise would be needed to burn off its calorific content might be a more effective way of encouraging people to make healthier dietary choices, a study suggested.

A review of evidence found this type of labelling led to people choosing significantly fewer calories relative to comparator labelling.


Image Credit: Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health

"We're not suggesting that people don't eat, but certainly it might encourage people to take a healthier option when they know the amount of walking or running that they may need to complete to expend the calories in the food that they've chosen," said Prof Amanda Daley from Loughborough University, who led the study.

The food industry previously introduced nutritional labelling to help consumers make more informed choices. However, with around two-thirds of the UK population either overweight or obese, evidence has suggested that physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) labelling could help tackle the problem.

The suggestion has been advanced by the Royal Society for Public Health which said there was evidence that 53% of people would change their behaviour after viewing front-of-pack PACE labelling.

Researchers Reviewed Randomised Trials

Researchers set out to explore the strength of evidence that linking calories with energy expenditure could change people's eating habits and help reduce obesity levels.

To reach their conclusions, they carried out a systematic review of 14 randomised controlled trials and experimental studies.

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health , found that when PACE labelling was displayed on food, drinks, and menus, consumers selected products with 64.9 fewer calories per meal when compared with other types of food labelling, or no labelling at all.

PACE labelling was also associated with the consumption of 80 to 100 fewer calories than no food labelling, or other types of labelling, the research found.

"If you think that we have three meals a day, and most of us have one or two snacks, that's essentially five main eating occasions," Prof Daley told Medscape News UK. "And we think PACE labelling may reduce the amount of calories we consume by about 50 to 60 calories per eating occasion.

"That, if you add it up, can be between 200 and 250 calories, particularly around 'discretionary foods' – alcohol, cakes, biscuits, crisps, those sorts of things."

Future Research Needed

The researchers caution that the number of included studies was small, and the design of each varied considerably.

"I think there's still more we need to do in terms of more real-life studies, in real eating occasions," said Prof Daley. "So, I think we've provided a step in the right direction.

"I think it's important to say that we're not suggesting that current labelling should be abandoned. We're saying that this type of labelling could be added – because it's not going to do any harm to let people know that the chocolate muffin they've just eaten is going to potentially take 50 minutes of running, or an hour-and-a-half of walking, to expend."

The researchers said their findings were at odds with those of a 2018 Iranian-led study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity which reported no significant reduction in calories from PACE labelling.

Effects of physical activity calorie equivalent food labelling to reduce food selection and consumption: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled studies doi 10.1136/jech-2019-213216. Paper .


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.
Post as: