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Nutrition Labeling Laws Need a Major Workout
Gosh, that was a great game Sunday, and those 10 chicken wings you had were delicious.
Now drop and give me 3,000 situps! You heard me! That should just about cover the 550 calories you consumed. And to take care of the eighth of a tray of taco dip you scooped up (462 calories), about 46 minutes of jumping rope ought to cover it.
Those calculations, provided by Men's Journal, are meant to encourage us to do some exercise — not as something you say you'll get to come Monday but as something to be done routinely before, after and in between these game day pleasures. It doesn't necessarily mean game day food abstinence, but it does mean making smarter choices. Those 1,500 calories of meat are made up of protein that could fuel a workout. The other stuff may be just empty calories not easily shed, with sugar being the major culprit. Calories from sugars affect the body differently than do calories from fats or protein. Even the most active person can develop chronic disease from a high-sugar diet, says David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at Harvard Medical School.
That demonstrates an important point. We need to make nutritional information simpler and the consequences of our dietary actions more understandable if we are to find our way to better health. That was the intent 20 years ago when the "Nutrition Facts" label we find on most food packages in the United States became law. Unfortunately, it takes a secret decoder ring, sadly not provided, for the vast majority of people to figure out what all that information means. People may take a glance, but many don't bother at all.
Among those people who don't are the ones who need help the most. Studies have shown that people who consume the most junk calories are also those with the least education and health literacy. It is the same population with the highest rates of obesity and related chronic diseases.
"Federal regulations already require that this nutrition information is conveyed," notes Sara Bleich, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Why not give this information in the most digestible form, in a way that's shown to have the largest impact on behavior?"
Her plan: listing physical activity equivalents on labels to either replace or augment calorie counts. Though conversion from calories to exercise is not universal, neither are other calculations, such as serving size. Everything in nutrition is based on averages. Bleich, who has been studying her approach since 2011, is convinced that providing a usable benchmark would be better than an absolute number, such as a calorie count, which is completely irrelevant to many people.
Bleich's latest findings on the effectiveness of the concept of equivalence were recently published in the American Journal of Public Health. The report includes a study in which Bleich and her colleagues installed brightly colored signs in six corner stores in low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore. One type of sign posted the number of calories in a regular bottle of soda pop. Another type posted the amount of sugar in the same bottle. A third type of sign showed either the number of minutes someone would have to run or the number of miles someone would have to walk to burn off those 250 calories.
Overall, the study revealed that providing any calorie information encouraged more teens to purchase water or a diet soft drink instead of a sugar-sweetened beverage. But signs that displayed the physical activity information had a stronger effect than the other types of signs.
Bleich's next step is to expand the experiment to Hispanic populations and to put the signs on solid snacks. Though she has generated some support from the Food and Drug Administration in the quest to make nutrition labeling relevant and digestible, she has also seen considerable pushback from food industry groups.
Meanwhile, the FDA is proposing to update the 20-year-old "Nutrition Facts" label. The period for comments on the proposed changes ended in August. If adopted, the changes would require more information about "added sugars" and would update serving size requirements, as well as new labeling requirements for certain package sizes to better reflect how people eat and drink today. The label design will also get a facelift, making calories and serving sizes more prominent. The proposed changes did not include exercise equivalents.
With a label still too complex, simplifying it will remain in the hands of the food industry, which has lately been embracing calorie counts as a marketing tool to sell us both the good and the bad. And labeling that can say, for example, that a food contains "0 g" of trans fats while including "partially hydrogenated oil" in the list of ingredients remains. This means that the food contains trans fats but has less than 0.5 gram of trans fats per serving. But you won't know any of that.
I'd eat three jalapeno poppers (190 calories) out of frustration over all this, but then I'd have to spar for 20 minutes to burn them off. But then again, I might do that anyway after the game, especially if my team loses.
Write to Chuck Norris (email@example.com) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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