Thursday, 7 April 2016

…. For I Have Sinned

Why exercise is not an act of contrition

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health thinks activity icons on food packaging will help combat obesity. The idea is to use stick people to show how long it would take to run or walk off the calories you’re about to eat.

The RSPH think that people are suffering from information overload in food packaging and that this will help – by giving them even more information as there is no proposal to replace the current labelling. Their research has found that 63% of people would support its introduction, with 53% saying it would cause them to make positive behaviour changes such as choosing healthier products, eating smaller portions or doing more physical exercise.

There are several problems with this approach. Firstly, who are the times based on? Everyone has a different metabolism and burns calories at a different rate depending on gender, height, age, build, lifestyle and so on.

The recommended calorie intake is 2500 a day for men and 2000 for women, based on some mythical average human. Averages can be useful as guidelines but it should be made clear that pretty much no one is ‘average’. I’m certainly not and nor is anyone I know.

Judging by the comments on the BBC article about this initiative, people don’t even understand what calories do. Someone commented on how long they’d have to run to work off 2500 a day, for example. We need calories to survive, they are not the enemy. It makes a big difference what constitutes those calories though – fats, sugars and so on. Eating 2000 a day is not going to keep you healthy if they’re made up of pizza and chocolate no matter how much you exercise.

You don’t just burn off calories while exercising. People who exercise regularly have a higher resting metabolic rate, which means that they burn off more even when they’re doing nothing just to sustain the extra muscle. What’s more, exercise is not just for calorie or weight control. There are many other health benefits, both physical and psychological.

The RSPH press release says that ‘it is hoped that ‘activity equivalent’ calorie labelling would help promote and normalise physical activity’. This is my biggest problem with the proposal – the intention may be to get people to be more active but it very strongly promotes the idea of exercise as punishment or penance rather than ‘normalising’ activity.

It’s like a Catholic approach to health – commit the sin and then do penance. Exercise is not an act of contrition and framing it as such helps no one. If guilt is your motivation and you hate every minute of your workout, you’re much less likely to keep up the exercise. Or, if you think you can exercise away the muffin, you have no reason to stop eating them in a cycle of sin and do penance, sin and do penance. As one woman told me, this approach is ‘reinforcing the notions that food has a moral value based on its calorific content, and that exercise is some kind of punishment for making arbitrarily-determined ‘poor’ nutritional choices’. Exercise does not wash away your sin and restore your moral balance.

A woman at my gym once said to me ‘When I’m as thin as you I can stop coming’. She wasn’t happy when I pointed out that the only reason I stay fit is that I keep coming. Forever. And ever. Amen.

There’s another worrying aspect to this proposed initiative. As a friend has pointed out, ‘This promotes an inherently disordered framing of what food and exercise are ‘for’. The whole idea of exercising simply to compensate for the food you've eaten is so triggering to people in eating disorder recovery who need to unlearn this bullshit in order to have a healthy and moderate relationship with food. This is so harmful, in the sense that it might actually trigger restriction and a return to disordered eating behaviours’.

This proposal comes from a good intention to help empower consumers to make healthier choices and to tackle the obesity crisis. But we already know that some foods are healthier than others. People over-eat for many different and complex reasons. If you buy crisps or chocolate, you know they are not health food. Who looks at how many calories are in a bar of chocolate and then puts it back? No one.

Making people feel guilty about their choices is not going to solve underlying psychological problems, nor is promoting exercise just to balance the scales. It’s not going to change anyone’s relationship with what they put in their mouth or with their bodies. When it comes to obesity, no one-size-fits-all approach is going to work.

As to the 63% who support the introduction of the activity icons – the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Also, the road to gyms making a profit is paved with people who join and then stop going after a couple of months. People often answer health questions based on how they would like to see themselves, how they would like to be, rather than on a realistic self-appraisal.

There is also the issue of practicality. Legislation on the mandatory labelling of food and drink is currently decided at the European level. Even if the political will existed and the food and drink industry was on board, it could take several years to happen. The industry is generally not so keen on ideas that discourage people from eating their products – unless they can sell us other products to counteract their effect. Maybe they should start investing in gyms.

Finally, why is it that articles like this so often have a food porn image at the top? Does the BBC (for example) think that we’ll read anything if there’s a picture of a heap of chocolate at the top? And, as all chocolate-lovers know, there is no such thing as a standard chocolate bar.

Pray for us sinners.

1 comment:

  1. re: morality of food and eating: I guess this has come down to us from times of austerity and famine, which is not so long ago.

    My parent's generation survived the war when food was scarce. Children were taught to be careful and to eat all that was on the plate, but not to take what wasn't theirs. This was a simple and direct moral imperative linked to national survival. It's very difficult to ignore childhood indoctrination. That is the similarity with other 'moral' imperatives, like religious practises and beliefs