When browsing through grocery store aisles, many shoppers often read the labels of the foods they choose before tossing them into their carts. A survey by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in 2010 found that 54 percent of Americans read the label the first time they buy a new product.
Calorie counts are at the top of every nutrition label, but those numbers don't really mean a lot to many consumers. That's why a new article published in The BMJ advocates supplementing nutrition facts with "activity equivalents," or a snapshot of how much exercise it would take to burn an equal amount of calories contained in food.
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Using these activity equivalents gives consumers a direct link between their food and exercise, according to Shirley Cramer, chief executive at the Royal Society of Public Health in the United Kingdom. "The aim is to prompt people to be more mindful of the energy they consume and how these calories relate to activities in their everyday lives, to encourage them to be more physically active," Cramer writes.
Let's consider how this would work in practice.
In the United States, the average woman weighs around 166 pounds (75 kilograms), and the average man is around 196 pounds (89 kilograms), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The typical 12-ounce can of soda contains about 138 calories. That would take the average American man about half an hour to burn off on a walk, and the average woman would need to keep it up another 5 minutes to cancel out the can.
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Jogging at a 6 mile-per-hour pace could shortens that time to 11 minutes for average women in the U.S. and 9 minutes for men. Calorie expenditure shifts with exercise length and activity as well as with the weight of the individual engaged in physical activity.
Given the confusion around nutrition labels, the proposed plan could mean better-informed consumers. According to a 2012 survey by Nielsen of over 25,000 food shoppers, 59 percent of respondents around the world reported struggling to understand the information in nutrition labels. Forty-one percent "mostly" understand the contents of the labels, suggesting room for improvement.
Measures such as improved food labeling could help put a dent in the worldwide obesity epidemic. The number of obese people worldwide now exceeds the ranks of those who are underweight, according to a study published last week in The Lancet.
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In 1975, 105 million people were obese, and that figure ballooned to 641 million in 2014. The proportion of obese men has more than tripled and more than doubled for obese women. The total number of underweight individuals was cut by around a third for both genders.
Nearly a fifth of the world's obese adults, 118 million, and more than a quarter of severely obese individuals, 50 million, live in just six high-income nations: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the United States, more than a third of adults, or 78.6 million Americans, are obese.
Obesity-related illnesses, such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease and certain kinds of cancers, are some of the leading causes of preventable death, according to the CDC.