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Nutrition Education via Labeling

Posted by eric on December 19, 2011

There have been a number of articles recently discussing ways to properly "educate" consumers about the foods they eat via labeling (example). I've mentioned many times in my blogs and on my website that I'm not a trained nutritionist, so take this with a grain of salt I suppose, but I'm struggling with how adding something like an "amount of exercise" label to food really addresses the need for nutrition education.

Here's why:

By using something like a food label (color coding, exercise implications, etc.), the focus is solely on one particular aspect of the food, and one particular aspect of a person's diet/lifestyle. As a result, the view someone is getting on the health value of a particular food is extremely myopic.

Let's take a look at the example I link to above, where the caloric value of a sweetened drink is referenced in several ways - number of calories, percent of total daily caloric intake, and amount of exercise required to burn off said amount of calories. There are several fundamental problems with this method that I see:

  1. It's focused purely on the calorie content of the food in question. The fact that a food may contain 10% of your daily calories may or may not be a problem - it depends on what else you're planning on eating and what nutritional value (protein, fat, carbs, fiber, vitamins and minerals, etc.) the food contains. Calories are not "the enemy" per se. People need a certain amount of calories per day simply to function, so calling them out doesn't necessarily solve a problem.

  2. If the person looking at the exercise label thinks "no problem, I'm running a 5 miler today anyway", they may overlook the other negatives about the food. In the sweetened drink example, it could be the sugar, in others it could be high levels of saturated fat, or chemicals added to remove fat and calories.

  3. It doesn't really help someone make good choices. While some foods may be labeled, others may not - how do we manage consistency between various "healthy" labeling practices? Who determines what are the right products to label? By giving such a limited view on limited products, people can be fooled into thinking they're making good choices, when really they're being steered to certain foods for the wrong reasons.

So while I applaud the intentions behind the labels, I seriously doubt that they'll have any positive impact on improving people's health long term. Again, it comes down to people making a decision to be educated about what they eat, being determined to improve their health, and being dedicated to maintaining their progress. There are already resources out there that explain what's good and what's bad - we've made it as easy as possible to get complete information about foods, exercise programs, necessary nutrients, what you shouldn't eat, etc.

People still eat fast food, they still smoke, they still do stupid things that they know are bad for them. Why? Because it's easier, or tastier, or habitual, or any number of reasons that can be found to avoid doing the things that are best for our health. It's not that healthy is hard - it's that unhealthy is often the most convenient, cost-effective way to live.

Until it's less expensive to eat nutritious, well-balanced meals and to exercise regularly than it is to eat chemically processed foods and sit around, we will continue to get (and stay) obese. In the mean time, those of us that can need to continue to promote good choices. We have to hope that someday it will make a real impact.

Stay fit everyone.

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