Brought to our attention through an article posted by Forbes’ Sophie Medlin, there’s a new study published by the British Medical Journal circulating within the eating disorder discourse. Unfortunately, this study is one that is largely dissimilar to the values we maintain at Columbus Park.

The study describes the impact of using physical activity calorie equivalent/expenditure (PACE) labelling for foods, instead of the common marking of calories. A PACE label might include the number of minutes an individual would have to jog or how many miles someone would need to walk in order to burn off the food in question. This study, conducted by Daley, McGee, Bayliss, Coombe, and Parretti (2019), concludes that PACE food labelling reduces the amount of calories chosen for consumption by study participants, as compared to more traditional food labelling or no food labelling.

This study analyzed 15 studies previously completed on PACE labelling – its results showed that there was a slight decrease in the number of calories consumed by participants when using PACE labelling versus calorie labelling or no labelling. Within the discussion of the article, the authors claim that even a small decrease in number of calories eaten and an increase in physical exercise leads to healthier outcomes.

Medlin responds to the findings and recommendations put forward by this article by stating that while surely our policies surrounding food labelling could use revision in order to promote health-promoting eating routines, using PACE labelling places the emphasis on the wrong places – the mindset that someone needs to “earn” food and constantly “burn off” what they consume. Her questions include: How will this influence how we see our caloric daily intake needs? What about those with disabilities that cannot walk or run?

Our thoughts align with Medlin and much extend further in relation to concern about the implications of this new study. Those with eating disorders may already over-exercise as part of their illness, working out excessively to “get rid of” the calories previously consumed. Placing a PACE label on any food both colludes with this behavior and triggers it.  Those with eating disorders already feel incessantly driven to compensate for any and all food consumption; PACE labels both validate and encourage this misguided pursuit. 

Further… it’s ludicrous to think that we should constantly be mindful of “burning off” what we consume.  This suggestion just highlights how exercise is so often viewed from a cosmetic lens – a means to achieving or maintaining the thin ideal.  Without question, exercise, in its own right, is healthy.  As Linda Bacon, PhD states in her book Health At Every Size, “It is well established that the relationship between activity and longevity is stronger than the relationship between weight and longevity.”  Bacon goes on to site numerous studies supporting this statement. Fitness is meaningful when it comes to health – much more meaningful than weight; these food labels inappropriately conflate the two.  Exercise does not need to be considered a “fix” for what someone had for lunch; it’s health-supporting to exercise irrespective of what you eat.

As we’ve previously mentioned in blog posts, our societal approach to obesity could consider the perspectives from the Health at Every Size movement – that all products, advertisements, concepts thrown at us everyday promote the thin ideal, telling us that being in a larger body is inherently negative and unhealthy.

While it feels discouraging to see studies bringing up what we believe are unsafe and unthoughtful practices, it reminds us to think critically about not only what we see and hear in the media, but also what gets published in esteemed research journals.