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Exercise Calories? Sounds Disordered to Me.

CW: calorie counts, disordered eating behaviour, weight-centric views of health.

Recent research carried out at Loughborough University proposes that food packaging should display Exercise Calories. They want to show how much energy we should burn after eating something, with the intention of making us eat less.

The researchers told the BBC: “It’s about educating the public that when you consume foods, there is an energy cost, so that they can think, ‘Do I really want to spend two hours burning off that chocolate cake? Is the chocolate cake really worth it?'” It’s hard for me to verbalise how concerning I find this.

Motivation for Movement?

Don’t get me wrong – exercise is important. But we must be motivated to move for the benefits in our body and endorphins in our mind, not by guilt. Given that the “success” of the study was the outcome of participants eating fewer calories per day, it’s clear that the premise of Exercise Calories is not to encourage movement. It’s actually to discourage people from eating – so they can exercise less.

Not to mention that this labelling is hardly accurate, considering that our bodies burn a certain amount of energy per day for us to exist. Whilst the amount will vary between each person, there is no one on the planet that would need to to compensate every single bite with subsequent physical activity. We NEED energy to sustain ourselves throughout the day.

Exercise Calorie Guide, BBC.

Taking this guide from the BBC as an example, lets say that one day I eat all of these items. Breakfast is a quick bowl of cereal. For lunch, I’ve nipped to Tesco and grabbed a muffin, a packet of McCoys and a can of coke. For dinner, its a chicken and bacon sandwich. Not exactly a balanced diet, but sometimes it happens.

Using this as an example, Exercise Calories tell me I need to walk for 4 hours 20 minutes to burn off my intake. Yet my actual calorie intake would have been 1420 calories, which is actually significantly under the recommended daily intake. In reality, I would have probably used up those calories doing whatever was more important than getting a proper lunch. Suggesting that any intake needs to be negated by exercise is simply not true, and is potentially extremely harmful.

A Path to Disordered Eating

In the UK, eating disorders are estimated to effect between 1.25 and 3.4 million people. Eating disorders ruin lives. They have a higher mortality rate than any other psychiatric disorder. And yet the labelling of Exercise Calories is literally encouraging compensating behaviours, a trait that seems to be lent from disordered eating.

At the peak of my eating disorder, I couldn’t wait to log my exercise on MyFitnessPal and see it balance out my my food intake for the day. This is purging – a common symptom of disordered eating where a person does things to “get rid” of the food they have eaten. This could be by self-induced vomiting, laxative use or excessive exercise, and I don’t think its a big reach to see how telling someone “you’ll need to spend four hours walking off this pizza” fits in to this.

If you think this sounds healthy, you have clearly never felt the physical weakness, the mental emptiness or the self hatred. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone and I certainly don’t think it is a benefit to public health. Having been through this, recovered and then come out of the experience “overweight” I wholeheartedly believe the initiative of Exercise Calories is wrong.

When I was compensating my calories, my diet was abysmal. I didn’t care about the nutritional value of what I ate, I just craved the dopamine hit from eating something I felt I shouldn’t. Some days I literally ate nothing but chocolate, and others I had multiple takeaway pizzas for tea. Knowing that consuming other foods required less purging didn’t make a difference to me. I reassured myself that I could eat whatever I wanted, comforted by the knowledge that I would burn it off afterwards.

Now that I’m no longer obsessive over food, this behaviour seems a world away. I ignore calorie counts completely, and yet I naturally crave foods that are fresh and nutrient rich and no longer experience the “last supper” binges that are brought on by food guilt. Personally I know that my body and mind are much healthier. However, due to outdated medical terms, my appearance no longer fits the definition of “healthy” and it feels like Exercise Calories are telling me to bring my bulimia back to be more aesthetically pleasing.

Research vs. Real Life

In addition, it must be said that the research itself raises some doubts. This research was an analysis of 15 studies, with eight of these involving “hypothetical food selection”. Whilst I can appreciate that these situations are sometime necessary in scientific research, I’m sure anyone can agree that food choices can vary widely depending on context, and indeed that foods that we may hypothetically intend to eat might not always correlate with real life. The study also prioritises calorie count over nutritional value, and does not record long term outcomes – neither psychical or mental.

It might be true that this novel way of food shaming has as a bigger influence then the previous red traffic light highlighting the calorie count, but I would argue that this is because it’s new. This is the first time that our food packets have explicitly told us how to plan the rest of our day. Like calorie counts, I expect that this will eventually be overlooked once we remember that we are humans with cravings and diverse metabolisms.

I understand that this initiative is proposed to be for the benefit of public health. Yet eating disorders are clearly not in the interest of public health, fatphobia is proven to negatively effect health, food restriction does not effectively reduce weight and weight loss is not necessary for health improvement.

Overall, I find the proposition of Exercise Calories disappointing, concerning and yet highly predictable. Our society provides a natural birthplace for eating disorders and since fasting and laxative tea have become mainstream, nothing surprises me anymore. Disordered eating traits are constantly peddled under the guise of health, with the risks being ignored.

Living amongst this rhetoric can be draining and triggering, but having seen both sides I truly believe that having a good relationship with food – which may or may not involve chocolate cake – is healthier that living with lifelong food guilt and body dissatisfaction. Stay strong out there.

What do you think about displaying exercise suggestions on food packaging Do you think this is helpful, or harmful? I’d love to hear your thoughts – let me know in the comments below!

Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

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