RSPH calls for new ‘activity equivalent’ food and drink labelling to help combat obesity crisis

Food Labelling - images courtesy of RSPH

Food and drink labelling examples - images courtesy of RSPH

Independent charity the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) is calling for the introduction of ‘activity equivalent’ labelling in the UK as part of a collaborative strategy to tackle obesity, poor diet and inadequate exercise.

RSPH is proposing the use of pictorial icons, detailing how many minutes of exercise - such as walking, running, cycling or swimming - is required to burn off the calories contained in food and drink.

It is hoped that such labelling, placed in a prominent front-of-pack position, could increase consumer awareness at both point of purchase and also at point of consumption, helping people make more considered long-term choices about the foods and drinks they regularly consume.

Calorie Graph, images courtesy of RSPH

Calorie Graph - images courtesy of RSPH

RSPH says research indicates that consumers spend around six seconds examining labels before making a decision to purchase, and generally find information presented via symbols easier to assimilate than numeric information.

RSPH says its suggested ‘activity equivalent’ approach to labelling could make nutritional information more relatable and simpler for consumers to understand, and could also help to support behaviour changes including choosing healthier products, reducing portion sizes and undertaking more regular exercise, activities that offer a host of health benefits in addition to weight management including improved mood and energy levels, lowered stress levels and a lower risk of developing depression.

Obesity trend

In the UK, more than two-thirds of adults are now overweight or obese, an upward trend which, if continued, could result in 50% of women and 60% of men being classed as obese by 2050 – a health crisis of huge proportions. Obesity can lead to serious and even fatal health conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke and cancer.

Cheeseburger and Chips

As well as helping people to moderate excessive calorie consumption, it is also hoped that ‘activity equivalent’ calorie labelling with symbols indicating approximate burn off time required running, cycling and swimming, could help promote and normalise physical activity alongside calorie control.

“Making healthy choices”

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, RSPH, says: “Although nutritional information provided on food and drink packaging has improved it is evident that it isn’t working as well as it could to support the public in making healthy choices. Activity equivalent calorie labelling provides a simple means of making the calories contained within food and drink more relatable to people’s everyday lives, while also gently reminding consumers of the need to maintain active lifestyles and a healthy weight.”

“Given the responsibility of the food industry in tackling the obesity epidemic we believe activity equivalent calorie labelling could provide the nudge many people need to be more active and support their customers to make healthier choices.”

“A step in the right direction”

Steven Ward, Executive Director of ukactive, adds: “Anything that can get people more physically active is a step in the right direction. ukactive welcomes this paper as another sign that getting more people, more active, more often is at the top of public health professionals’ minds. We see a lot of health messaging telling us off, to eat and drink less, which although correct, doesn’t work for everyone. Encouraging people to be more active is a positive message, more about supporting people to start rather than imploring them to stop. Physical activity has been described by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges as a ‘miracle cure’ so we should treat it as just that.”

RSPH says it surveyed 2,000 people, 63% of whom say they would be supportive of activity equivalent labelling, and 53% of those surveyed say the prominent label reminder would have a positive impact on their behaviour.

Dr Davina Deniszczyc, Medical Executive Director at Nuffield Health, says of the proposed labelling: “This is an easy way of illustrating calories using a more meaningful approach and will help the public understand how much activity is needed for even a small calorie burn. Nuffield Health have a clear charitable objective to help people get healthy and stay healthy and we think this plea for new labelling, alongside encouraging people to eat a balanced diet and do some form of physical activity each day, will help improve peoples’ general health and reduce their risk of developing future health problems.”


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