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Dr. Zorba Paster: How to make food labels better

I like reading food labels. It’s not just because I’m a geek, a moniker I gladly accept, but because I want to eat right – more protein, less carbs, fewer calories.

And when I do read the labels, I am often flabbergasted by what I see. Foods that I think may be just a few calories are often way more than I thought.

Take, for instance, potato chips. I often get a small bag with my sandwich. The sub I order is about 350 calories, while the bag of chips is 150, nearly as many as half a sub. Now, as do most of you, I usually want something crunchy. But is it worth 150 calories?

Pretzels are about half as many calories as chips, and carrots, well, carrots are nearly none at all by comparison.

But add up this and add up that and sometimes I just get lost in the fog of how much exercise I need to burn off the extra calories. For those chips, it would require walking for about 30 minutes – now, that’s meaningful.

And that’s where a new article in the British Medical Journal comes in. They think food companies should have to include information on labels regarding how much exercise is needed to burn off what they sell (fat chance that will happen).

If you looked at your can of soda and saw that drinking it meant you had to walk for 24 minutes to burn it off (most soda is that rich), you just might toss it.

I know, I know. People say that even when you put this information out there, no one changes. Let me tell you, they are wrong. Some people read labels and alter what they eat, and others do not. Getting that information out is what counts.

A 150-pound person burns 100 calories for every 15 minutes of walking. So if I wanted to burn off the 350-calorie sub I mentioned, I’d have to walk a bit longer than 45 minutes. Throw in a bag of chips and a bottle of soda and that means – do the math, folks – 350 (sub) + 150 (chips) + 150 (soda) = 650 calories. That’s more than an hour and a half of walking at a leisurely pace. That’s a lot of walking!

But that is how food should be labeled. It should say, eat this and it will take you more than an hour and a half to burn off that food.

Now, you could argue we can’t label like this because the more you weigh the more calories you burn with each step. But we could settle on some generalized standard here.

No wonder it’s so hard to lose weight. We are surrounded by highly caloric food that’s manufactured and produced to meet your expectations. And we love it so much we’re eating ourselves out of house or home, or shall we say body and good health?

My spin: Do the math. For every 100 calories you eat, you have to walk 15 minutes to burn it off. Just keep that equation in your head the next time you decide whether to supersize your meal. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and host of the public radio program “ZorbaPaster on Your Health,” which airs at noon Wednesdays on 91.1 FM, and noon Sundays on 91.9 FM. His column appears twice a month in The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at askzorba@ doctorzorba.com.


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