Researchers at Loughborough University have suggested that including ‘exercise images’ on food labels will help tackle the obesity crisis.

The theory goes that converting calories into the amount of exercise needed to burn them off will make people think twice about how much they eat. For example, a symbol of a runner with the number 40 would indicate you have to jog for 40 minutes to offset the calories of a Mars Bar.

It’s an approach which makes a lot of sense, and not just for those who are struggling with weight. Providing information in the most basic and easy to understand form will help more people make an informed decision when it comes to the food they consume.

Better still, it can be understood by people of different ages, abilities, and even languages. The simple mechanism of seeing the exact amount of exercise recommended in black and white may well help individuals choose the healthier option and think twice about the amount of movement we should do each day.

This specific idea may not come to reality, but it has put the subject of food labelling in the spotlight again and that’s great. Because we tend to forget that there is already a good amount of information out there to help us choose the right foods – you just have to look for it!

Start with the basics

We all know packaged food includes nutritional information listing the values of energy, fat, carbohydrates, sugar, fibre, protein and salt. The trouble is this can be confusing. When it comes to making quick decisions, simplicity is key.

Which is exactly why we shouldn’t forget the Government’s traffic light system. It makes labels much easier to understand by colour coding the nutritional values: green equals good, red equals bad, amber is ok in moderation.

By simply choosing foods with more green than red you can be confident you are making the healthier choice without getting stuck in the details.

And the great thing is, it’s simple enough for kids to understand too, so they can also be encouraged to follow the system. Next time you go shopping as a family, for example, why not encourage them to look for the green and amber in their favourite treats rather than those with red. Make a bit of a game of it.

Depending on your family’s eating habits you could introduce a blanket ban on anything red, or limit products with red on the label to just twice a week. The more you do it together the more natural making the healthy choice will become.

Sugary secrets

Reading the label will also help you cut out foods which have been marketed to suggest they are low fat but are actually not that healthy.

For example, sugar is often used to improve the flavour of low-fat items. But free sugars – sugar added to food or drink rather than those naturally found in fruit – do not provide us with any nutrients. And too much sugar means extra calories, which can lead to obesity, raising your risk of heart disease and other conditions.

As well as avoiding sugars which are labelled red, learning how to identify sugars – particularly those in processed foods – will also help you keep track of how much you and your kids are consuming. A good trick is to keep an eye out for words ending in ‘ose’ as these are all forms of free sugar. The higher up they appear on the ingredients list, the more sugar the product contains.

Adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day (around seven sugar cubes), children aged seven to 10 should have no more than 34g, and children aged between four and six should have no more than 19g.

It’s ok to have a sweet treat, but keep them for special occasions, not every day.

Move it!

While no amount of running, swimming or bike riding will make up for a diet that is persistently high in sugar and fat, mentally associating exercise with the occasional treat may be enough to get you moving a little more. So, whether the new system is introduced or not, this is something to keep in mind.

They key is to stay realistic. You might not fancy doing a 10k or an hour-long circuits session for every bag of crisps you enjoy, but you could make a point of moving a little more than previously. Perhaps the kids could earn their after-school treat only on days they have walked home from the classroom, or you can only justify the mid-morning biscuit if you use the stairs instead of the lift at work. As a family, anything that gets your hearts pumping will burn off excess energy.

Just give it a go

This idea of putting exercise guidelines on food may never happen, but getting into the habit of reading labels and considering how food (fuel for the body) can be balanced with activity will give you and your family a huge boost when it comes to choosing the right nutrition. The more attention you can give them, the healthier your family will be.