Excess consumption of sugar and carbs — not physical inactivity — is behind the global surge in obesity, say experts in an editorial published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Poor diet, the authors conclude, “cannot be outrun by exercise.”
Even the amount of exercise athletes engage in cannot counter a bad diet, say the authors, who cite evidence that while obesity has skyrocketed in the past 30 years, “there has been little change in physical activity levels in the western population.” At the same time, however, global consumption of sugar and carbohydrates has surged by an estimated 400-500 calories a day.
The major point the team makes – which they say the public doesn’t really understand – is that exercise in and of itself doesn’t really lead to weight loss. The authors acknowledge that exercise does have a number of important health benefits, but weight loss – if you’re not also restricting calories – isn’t one of them. “Regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and some cancers by at least 30 percent,” they write. “However, physical activity does not promote weight loss.”
But few people realize this, and many wrongly believe that obesity is entirely due to lack of exercise, a perception that is firmly rooted in corporate marketing, say the authors. And the consequences are striking: citing The Lancet’s Global Burden of Disease reports, the authors say our calorie laden diets now generate more ill health than physical inactivity, alcohol, and smoking combined.
Food industry tactics are ‘chillingly similar to those of Big Tobacco’
The authors describe the public relations tactics of the food industry as “chillingly similar to those of Big Tobacco,” which deployed denial, doubt, confusion and “bent scientists” to convince the public that smoking was not linked to lung cancer.
“Celebrity endorsements of sugary drinks and the association of junk food and sport must end,” they declare, adding that health clubs and gyms need to set an example by removing the sale of these products from their premises. “The ‘health halo’ legitimization of nutritionally deficient products is misleading and unscientific,” they write.
As an industry example of providing “misleading” information, the authors say that Coca-Cola spent $3.3 billion on advertising in 2013, much of which “pushes a message that ‘all calories count equally.'” Other advertisements for the sugary drinks “associate their products with sport, suggesting it is OK to consume their drinks as long as you exercise.”
“However, science tells us this is misleading and wrong,” says the article, adding:
“It is where the calories come from that is crucial. Sugar calories promote fat storage and hunger. Fat calories induce fullness or ‘satiation.'”
Even healthy weight individuals suffer the health consequences of excess sugar, carbs
Notably, the adverse effects of these global dietary trends are not limited to people who are overweight or obese. The authors cite evidence from a 2013 review of the medical literature, which found that that up to 40 percent of those within a normal weight (BMI) range experience harmful metabolic abnormalities typically associated with obesity, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease.
Likewise, these dietary habits significantly increase the risk of developing diabetes, even among healthy weight individuals. According to another 2013 study cited in the editorial, the prevalence of diabetes increases 11-fold for every 150 additional sugar calories consumed daily, compared with the equivalent amount of calories consumed as fat — and these effects are independent of a person’s weight and physical activity.
And the evidence now suggests that carbs are no better, the authors add. Recent research indicates that cutting down on dietary carbohydrate consumption is the single most effective approach for reducing all of the features of the metabolic syndrome and should be the primary strategy for treating diabetes, with benefits occurring even in the absence of weight loss.
The food environment needs to be changed so that people automatically make healthy choices, suggest the authors. This “will have far greater impact on population health than counseling or education. Healthy choice must become the easy choice,” they say.
The authors also call for an end to deceptive advertising and misinformation that promote unhealthy dietary choices. “This manipulative marketing sabotages effective government interventions such as the introduction of sugary drink taxes or the banning of junk food advertising.”
“It’s time to wind back the harms caused by the junk food industry’s public relations machinery. Let’s bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity. You can’t outrun a bad diet,” they conclude.
Industry tactics coming under scrutiny
The BMJ, the lead journal of the group publishing the present opinion piece, is positioned against commercial bias in health issues, and in February published its own investigations against the sugar industry, presenting evidence that companies have attempted to influence public health policy.
The report documented extensive industry involvement in public health research, with companies such as Coca-Cola, Mars, and and Nestlé spending millions of dollars to fund studies on nutrition and public health. Most damning, recipients of industry funding included members of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which is currently updating official advice on carbohydrate consumption, and researchers working for the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research unit (HNR), a government agency with influence over public policy.
While industry-funded research is not always biased, the BMJ report cites recent research that has uncovered pro-industry bias in some sponsored studies. For example, a 2013 study published in PLoS Medicine revealed that systematic reviews examining the relationship of sugary beverages with weight gain or obesity were five times more likely to conclude that no such relationship exists if the research had been funded by industry. An earlier analysis that looked at 206 studies on the health effects of milk, soft drinks, and fruit juices also concluded that “[i]ndustry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.”
That’s certainly not the first time that food and beverage manufacturers have been accused of interfering in public health research. In 2012, former dentist Cristin Couzens published a bombshell report detailing evidence that the sugar industry used ‘Big Tobacco’ tactics to deflect growing concern over the health effects of sugar. In her investigation, Couzens uncovered entire boxes of documents describing industry lobby efforts to sponsor scientific research, silence media reports critical of sugar, and block dietary guidelines to limit sugar consumption.
“[They’re] different players, but it’s the same game,” Gretchen Goldman, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Daily Beast, referring to the two industries. “We’re seeing the exact same tactics that Big Tobacco was using. They’re trying to manufacture doubt in the science, they’re trying to pay their own experts to carry their talking points, and they’re doing these things with the intent to undermine public policy.”