Will Changing Food Labeling Change Behaviours?

Are food labels helpful to you? If you’re like most, the answer is . . . Sort of. Some researchers in the UK are experimenting with a new food labeling system. And it may be better than the calorie counts. Especially for those looking to lose weight.

It’s helpful to know how many calories go into a banana, or an egg, or a torso-sized vat of Nutella. No question. But those ranges (100–135, 55–80, and 200,000–250,000 Kcal respectively) are a little vague. Especially if you’re not keeping a tally of your daily intake.

The UK experiment used a few different types of indicators on food labels. And one of them worked far better than the others. Instead of the standard calorie counts, test subjects saw how much walking they’d need to do in order to burn off the food.

Maybe the advantage here is simply less math. Or perhaps exercise is easier to visualize and understand. Either way, it brings up the challenge of individual learning styles. What type of presentation works best for you?

Implementation of this approach is years away (at best). So here’s some advice in the meantime: find a measure that feels intuitive and useful. That could be serving size. It could be units of exercise. It could even just be breaking food into categories (e.g. regular eating habits and treats/exceptions). Use whatever will help you make quick, intuitive decisions.

And then? See how it’s working.

If the numbers (or pictures or whatever) match your results, you’re good. And if the outcomes don’t add up, simply tweak things until they do. Like anything, this is a process.

Here’s a bonus piece of advice. Food is about more than just calories and exercise is about more than just burning off food. But you knew that already.

No matter what, there’s one thing we can celebrate: the word problems from high school math may prove useful after all.
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