By Susan Burke March, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE
As evidence accumulates that sugary beverages are linked to obesity, soda consumption is headed down. In a a new Gallup poll, 60% of Americans say they are trying to avoid drinking soda.
Mexico has enacted a sugary beverage tax, and in Ecuador, Peru and Chile public health advocates and officials are working on regulating advertising to kids and have implemented food labeling so shoppers can know how much sugar and calories they’re taking in.
So what does Coca-Cola do? They double-down and spend billions yearly to promote the idea that you can “balance” sugar calories with more exercise. They are also funding “research” to prove that the reason people are getting fat is not because they’re quaffing calories, but because they’re sedentary.
A new organization, funded by Coke, is promoting the idea of energy balance, suggesting that you can counteract hundreds of calories consumed in minutes with “moderate” activity. According to LiveScience.com, Coca-Cola has given $1.5 million dollars to a new research organization called Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). This “non-profit” received $1.5 million from Coca-Cola last year to help launch the organization. (I put “non-profit” in quotes to emphasize that the funding is from profit-driven Coca-Cola).
On their website, GEBN promotes the message that lack of exercise is a bigger factor in the obesity epidemic than is calorie consumption, and that you can “balance” consumption of sugar-laden beverages by being active every day.
Except you can’t. And you can’t spin the science to make it so.
As detailed by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), sugary drinks are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. People who drink sugary beverages (a source of quick calories) don’t compensate for those hundreds of calories by eating less food. People who drink sugary beverages have a much lower quality of diet. And “natural” sugars from fruit juice have the identical impact on obesity as soda.
Over the past few years health researchers have shown that regular consumption of sugary drinks leads to serious and chronic health conditions. People who gulp liquid calories are more at risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease, not to mention tooth decay and gum disease.
Funding Public Health? Facts or Fallacy
When I say “billions” I’m not exaggerating. According to MarketRealist.com, Coke spent $3.37 billion on advertising in 2013, PepsiCo spent $3.9 billion, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group spent $486 million.
So it’s no surprise that Coca-Cola can find a few million to fund a “scientific” study group to promote the idea of “energy balance” – that is, that to fight obesity, it’s more important to exercise daily than to reduce your calories from sugar-sweetened beverages.
But as Yoni Freedhoff, Ottawa-based obesity expert, MD and blogger on WeightyMatters.ca said in the New York Times piece, “the words “energy balance” is a red flag”. He explained that it’s extremely unlikely that you can out-do the calories from sugar-laden beverages; energy input (calories in) have a greater impact on your weight than energy output (calorie burned in activity).
In short, you can’t undo the effects of sugar, especially for weight loss. And although exercise is important for all kinds of health reasons, including lowering risk for cancer, depression, type-2 diabetes, activity can, at best, only slow down weight gain. Science still counts calories as the main driver of weight gain for most people.
Of course, exercise is incredibly important for good health – no one is arguing against that. According to an editorial published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and some cancers by at least 30%.” But the experts emphasize that physical activity does not promote weight loss.
Cutting calories, especially “empty calories” plays a bigger role in weight loss. It’s the quality of your calories that makes the difference between health and disease. Think quality, not just calories.
According the HSPH, “A calorie is a calorie” is an oft-repeated dietary slogan, but it isn’t the whole story. Emerging research shows that quality is key in determining what we should eat and what we should avoid in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Calories count, but not all calories are created equal. Some, from refined carbs like sugar, are quickly metabolized and turned into fat and may promote inflammation. However, high-quality foods’ calories have a different impact. In fact, you may eat more calories from healthy fats and gain less weight compared to those who eat fewer calorie from low-quality foods.
High-quality foods include unrefined, minimally processed foods such as vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and healthy sources of protein.
Lower-quality foods include highly processed snack foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined (white) grains, refined sugar, fried foods, foods high in saturated and trans fats.
Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Live Science, “It’s certainly great to add exercise, but to suggest that it’s the solution to the obesity epidemic … is ridiculous.”
You can’t exercise your way to weight loss without modifying your diet too.
Research is important, but major funding from big corporations with a vested interest in its outcome can be an important source of bias.
Marion Nestle, Ph.D, M.P.H., the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, was interviewed by The Guardian in response to the New York Times article and said, “Most nutrition professional journals now require researchers to declare who funds their studies, making it possible to compare study outcomes with funding sources. Studies sponsored by Coca-Cola almost invariably report no association of sugary drinks with diabetes, they question the validity of studies that do find such associations or, as in the case of Global Energy Balance Network investigators, they find activity to be the most important determinant of body weight.”
She continued, “Analyses of studies funded by Coca-Cola or its trade association (The Beverage Institute) demonstrate that they have an 83% probability of producing results suggesting no harm from soda consumption. In contrast, the same percentage of studies funded by government agencies or independent foundations find clear linkages between sugary beverages and such conditions. Coincidence? I don’t think so.”
Neither do I.
Professor Nestle has a new book coming out soon called Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) to be published on October 1, 2015. Michael Moss, Author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, has written a blurb for this book, “What happens when the food industry’s most insightful critic turns her sights on soda? This razor-sharp, fun to read, plan-of-battle for one of the greatest public health fights of our time. Big soda may have all the money, but those who would enter this fray, as we all should, now have their champion.”
I can’t wait to read it.
In an article published in HuffPost.com, Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, nutritional biochemist and former director of the University of Utah Nutrition Clinic said, “As a rule of thumb, weight loss is generally 75% diet and 25% exercise. An analysis of more than 700 weight loss studies found that people see the biggest short-term results when they eat smart. On average, people who dieted without exercising for 15 weeks lost 23 pounds; the exercisers who didn’t diet lost only six over about 21 weeks. It’s much easier to cut calories than to burn them off.”
If you have about 40 minutes to spend on your treadmill, watch this very compelling video of Dr. Freedhoff explaining how research is often “massaged” in order to push an agenda: Dr. Freedhoff explains Rebranding Exercise: Why Exercise is the World’s Best Drug, Just Not a Weight Loss Drug. Or skip to the summary at minute 37.
Check out these cool web tools:
- SugarStacks.com uses sugar cubes to demonstrate how much sugar is in beverages.
- About Sugary Drinks provides facts, and a sugary drinks calculator – put in your age, height and weight, then indicate which beverage (soda, juice, sports and energy drinks, and more) you drink and how many weekly, and see how many “empty calories” you’re ingesting, and how it impacts your weight.
- HealthAssist.net is a calorie burn calculator – it shows you the exact time you need to walk, run, play basketball, drive a car or simply sleep to burn your calories.
This Just In!
As I was finishing my final edit of this column, an alert came in from MarketWatch.com – Coca-Cola says it will begin disclosing its investments in scientific research and advocacy about the impact sugary soft drinks have on public health.
Coca-Cola Co. Chief Executive Muhtar Kent effectively issued an apology for Coca-Cola’s support of questionable obesity research in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Thursday August 20.
What does this mean, really? Professor Marion Nestle weighs in on her blog Food Politics and notes that Mr. Kent ends his piece with this plea:
As we continue to learn, it is my hope that our critics will receive us with an open mind.
Dr. Nestle points out, “Unless Coca-Cola stops pouring millions of dollars into fighting soda caps and taxes, stops targeting its marketing to minorities, and stops lobbying against public health measures to help people eat more healthfully, keeping Mr. Kent’s version of an open mind will be difficult.”
This just in … Coca-Cola said yesterday that it would disclose its spending on research mentioned above. For more, click here.
More Sources & Resources
The Best Diet: Quality Counts. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/best-diet-quality-counts/
It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet. http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2015/05/07/bjsports-2015-094911.full
Mexico enacts soda tax in effort to combat world’s highest obesity rate. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/16/mexico-soda-tax-sugar-obesity-health
Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to me at SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com