A couple months ago, the Royal Society for Public Health (yes, that society is precisely as British as it sounds) proposed new labeling for snack foods. But they didn’t want to highlight the calories in Coke or the added sugar or even whatever the hell Caramel e150d is and how it may or may not be destroying our genitals. Instead, the Royal Society for Public Health proposed that soda be labeled with the amount of exercise it would take to burn off the calories inside one can (26 minutes).
As of now (and unsurprisingly), this suggestion has not been implemented by any major snack-food manufacturers, but the Royal Society for Public Health’s proposal is still a fascinating, and possibly even revolutionary way to think about fitness and nutrition. Because following this model, exercise and snack foods would be the cornerstones of a new sweat-and-sugar-based economy. Here’s how it might work:
Calories would be a currency earned on the treadmill or saved through disappointing lunchtime salads with inadequate dressing. Sodas and cakes and all the other wonderful things that put sugar in our blood and our expansive asses in mobility scooters would be the new commodities those burnt calories would purchase.
In all likelihood, this would not change our eating habits — because as scary as extra-wide caskets may be, quesaritos are tasty as hell — but perhaps this labeling would encourage a bit more exercise. Perhaps this labeling would eventually discourage junk food. And, most importantly, perhaps this labeling would finally nudge me from my seemingly inevitable future of XXXL Tommy Bahama shirts and unironic water aerobics.
There was only one way to find out. I decided to test out the “calories as currency” hypothesis of the Royal Society for Public Health for myself. But since 26 minutes of vigorous walking after drinking a Coke wasn’t quite as cinematic as my editor had hoped, we decided to purchase something a bit more ambitious with my exercise. We decided that I would burn off all the calories from an In-N-Out double-double combo meal.
And, as I would soon discover, there are a sh*tload of calories in a double-double combo meal.
Before I could “earn” all the calories in that combo meal, I first had to figure out how many calories my body burns when I exercise. To do so, I went to Tri Fit Club & Studios in Santa Monica for a full metabolic testing — body composition, V02 max, and resting metabolic rate — to scientifically determine how much exercise it would take for me to “earn” that fast-food meal.
Twenty minutes into my metabolic testing with a very nice sports dietician named Jeff Rothschild, something else was scientifically determined. It was something that I never hoped to see proven. In fact, it’s something I have steadily denied for most of my life: I’m fat.
Obese class 1 to be precise. Because there are rankings for these things, apparently.
Fully one third of my body was just fat, and I didn’t feel too great about the few parts of me that weren’t fat either. And before I even started “earning” that cheeseburger with exercise, I came to a very important conclusion about my experiment: This was stupid. A fat person like me should not exercise just to eat more of the stuff I shouldn’t eat anyway. I should exercise because that’s the healthy and responsible choice for me to make. I should exercise so that I can once again fit into the affordable plaids at H&M. And most importantly, I should exercise so I can live long enough to see (and then immediately regret) a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson presidency.
Part of me wanted to cancel the metabolic panel as soon as I saw those numbers, but I’d promised my editor an article, and Jeff had cleared his schedule for the appointment, and I had already driven from Silver Lake to Santa Monica at rush hour, which is an especially dry and sandy catheter of a commute, even by Los Angeles standards. So I stayed. And I finished my tests. And I ran on a treadmill at Tri Fit until my sweat stains oozed past the equator of my gut, and I kept running until I had had burned every one of the 1300 calories in a double-double combo meal.
Then, after a dignified faucet bath, I drove to the nearest In-N-Out for the meal I had so rightly earned. But here’s the kicker: I didn’t want to eat it. Not at all.
It wasn’t just because eating beef and deep fried potatoes and carbonated sugar water after an hour of vigorous cardio was terrifically horrible planning. I couldn’t finish that combo meal because I was still thinking about those tests, and those charts, and the look of restrained (but very real) concern in Jeff’s face when he explained what those charts and those tests and those many red numbers meant.
I could only force down half of my burger, a dozen or so fries, and (due to more dehydration than desire) my entire Coke before I gave up. I didn’t care that I’d only “spent” about half of the calories I’d earned working out. I didn’t care about any of the calories I’d earned that day. Instead, all I could think about were the many cheeseburgers and burritos and “it’s midnight and I don’t have anything better to do than eating this bowl of cereal” bowls of cereal that had “earned” me my class 1 obesity.
I spoke with celebrity fitness trainer (and occasional non-celebrity fitness trainer) Kit Rich before I started this article. And, like most people, she thought the idea of “earning” junk food through exercise was dangerously stupid. Or, in her words:
“You can’t just work out, and then eat like crap. It just doesn’t work that way.”
At first, I thought that quote would just be a fun sound bite for the video about my experience. But like most things pertaining to fitness and nutrition, Kit was right. Fitness doesn’t work that way. Nutrition doesn’t work that way. Weight loss doesn’t work that way.
I still don’t know what I am doing with fitness or nutrition, but at least I know what “doesn’t work” now, and I’ve tried to act differently since that day at Tri Fit. I’ve spent more hours at the gym, and I’ve eaten fewer cheeseburgers. I haven’t made this change so I can “earn” more junk food, or hoard my calories like Smaug. I’m doing this because I’m fat…but I don’t want to be fat forever.