Obesity Policy Gets the Runaround

Oct. 22, 2020

How the food & beverage industry emphasizes exercise over calorie restriction.

Many people believe too much in the power of exercise to help them lose weight. We’ve all heard the joke/cliché about running one lap around a track and rewarding yourself with a hot fudge sundae.

Now, there’s no question that regular exercise has many health benefits. But it’s not a magic bullet that can achieve weight loss unaided. Simply put, there is no practical way to lose weight that does not involve restricting calories.

That message hasn’t always come across clearly. When it comes to discussions of the nationwide, or global, obesity problem, somehow exercise always seems to come to the forefront. It’s been that way for a while. An absurd manifestation of this came in 2005, when the USDA released a version of its “Food Pyramid” that showed a figure running up stairs on one side. What did that have to do with nutrition?

Well, it turns out that exercise has come to the forefront of discussions about obesity because the food industry put it there. As a cover.

A recent issue of the Harvard Gazette featured an interview with Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropology professor specializing in China. She talked about her research into something called the International Life Sciences Institute. Founded by a Coca-Cola exec, ILSI is “the chief scientific nonprofit of the processed food and sugary drinks industry,” according to the article – in other words, a front group.

ILSI’s mission is to blur the correlation between obesity rates and high-calorie foods and beverages, primarily by overemphasizing the importance of exercise. This has been going on for a while. According to Greenhalgh, ILSI got on this kick in 1995, and its most effective proponent was Coca-Cola – until a 2015 exposé by the New York Times.

ILSI underwrote “research” that consistently pointed to exercise as the cure to obesity, while downplaying or ignoring the role of high-calorie products like...soft drinks.

“You can see Coke’s involvement too in the construction of the scientific rationales to support the physical-activity solution, primarily ‘energy-balance science,’ which says you can eat as many calories as you wish, as long as you burn them off,” Greenhalgh says.

I was startled by how much ILSI has influenced, if not corrupted, Chinese public policy: “In China the impact of that exercise-first approach promoted by Coke and ILSI continues to this day.” What was even more startling is how it was done: “In China, corporate funding of scientific research is just routine.”

We Americans too often think of ourselves as naïfs, susceptible to nefarious influence by the Chinese, the Russians, the Ukrainians or anyone else with a plot and an internet connection. This stuff about China, obesity and ILSI shows that when it comes to nefarious influence, any nation can be snowed by an industry with a clever approach and a lot of money.

But the food & beverage industry needs to watch it. Big Tobacco got away with “influencing” a lot of scientists to downplay the connection between smoking and cancer – until that couldn’t be done anymore. Now the tobacco industry’s credibility is, literally, a joke: “As reliable as a tobacco-company health study” is a sarcastic simile I’ve heard more than once. If food & beverage wishes to avoid that fate, it needs a more realistic approach to the obesity question, not a lot of deflection about the benefits of exercise.