December 13, 2017
Activity Icons to Get You Moving

Activity Icons to Get You Moving

by Berkeley Wellness  

Under the industry-directed Facts Up Front labeling program, an increasing number of supermarket foods and beverages voluntarily display calorie information on the front of packages, separate from the required Nutrition Facts panel. These prominent calorie icons (along with other simplified nutrition num­bers) can be found on thousands of products from more than 80 par­ticipating companies, which include ConAgra, General Mills, Hershey, Kraft, and PepsiCo. The intention is to help consumers choose lower-calorie options.

But one stumbling block to providing calorie counts, no matter how conspicuous they may be, is that the numbers are out of context. What does it mean that a serving of cereal has, say, 200 calories or a candy bar has 240 calories? Or that a frozen pasta primavera entree has 600 and a fast-food chicken club sandwich has 800? Are these numbers high or low? Do they eat up a big chunk of your daily calorie allotment? Most people don’t know how many calories they need in a day to maintain a healthy weight or lose weight. (On average, men need about 2,500 calories and women 2,000 a day, but these numbers vary widely depending on your weight, height, age, activity level, and other factors.)

Get on up

Enter the latest idea: activity icon labels that show the amount of physical activity, such as walking or running, needed to burn off the calories in servings of various foods. Proponents say that knowing you would have to walk more than 40 minutes or run more than 20 minutes to work off just one small bag of M&Ms, for example, may make you think twice before eating it. Tempted by that mocha coffee? It may take more than 50 minutes to walk off those calories.

In January 2016, the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) in the U.K. called for such “activity equivalent” calorie labeling to help tackle obesity. According to its position statement, activity symbols show how calories relate to activities in everyday life and can encourage people to be more mindful of calories and nudge them toward a more active lifestyle. More than half of people surveyed in a 2015 RSPH poll said that this type of labeling would motivate them to choose healthier products, eat less, and get more exercise.

Bottom line: Activity icons may be a simple and useful way to put calories into perspective, though they have not been put to the real-world test to see how effective they are. Unfortunately, none of the existing front-of-pack labels have been proven to improve people’s eating habits or help them cut calories, and some research suggests they may even make people think a food is health­ier than it actually is (see Front-of-Pack Food Labels: Help or Hype?). Moreover, critics of activity icons warn, rightly so, that these labels don’t distinguish between calories from healthy foods versus unhealthy ones—which is why you still need to look at all the nutrition labeling as well as the ingredients list to make the best choices.

That's a lot of walking

Here are rough approximations of how many minutes you have to walk briskly to burn the calories in common high-calorie foods, estimated for a 140-pound and 180-pound person.* To get an idea of your daily calorie needs, go to Facts Up Front.

Foods and beverages Calories 140 lbs 180 lbs
Chocolate bar, 1.45 ounces 230 55 min 40 min
Fast-food burger 250 60 45
Fast-food French fries, medium 380 90 75
Fast-food shake, 16 ounces 495 115 90
Ice cream, premium, 1 cup 530 125 95
Ice cream, regular, 1 cup 275 65 50
Muffin, 4 ounces 335 80 60
Peanuts, dry roasted, 1 ounce 165 40 30
Pizza, slice, from 14" pie 285 65 50
Potato chips, 1 ounce 150 35 25
Raisin bran cereal, 1 cup 190 45 35
Salad dressing, ranch, 3 tablespoons 190 45 35
Soft drink,12-ounce can 150 35 25

* Determined from the Calorie Control Council’s Get Moving Calculator

Also see Can You Trust Calorie Counts? and Up-Front Nutrition Labels.