Sugar-sweetened science: Coca-Cola, exercise and complexity

This week a New York Times article reported that the Coca-Cola company was funding a new non-profit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network dedicated to shifting the obesity discussion away from calorie intake and instead focusing on energy output. Their message: don’t worry so much about what you eat (and drink—like sugary Coca-Cola products). If you want to reach and maintain a healthy weight, work on exercise—that will help much more than cutting calories.

Here’s the message (via the article) from one of the organization’s members:

“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on,” the group’s vice president, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video, announcing the new organization. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

So is this true?


There are actually two complicated stories to explain the existence of this organization and its message. The first one is about what happens when industry partners very closely with scientific research, especially when that industry has a lot to gain (or lose), depending on the outcome of that research. Philosopher (and one of our readers!) Dan Hicks has worked on the politics and science of GMOs (genetically modified foods), and has found lots of ways that both scientific and political concerns about GMOs have been sidetracked or ignored. Here  is an interview he did about the issue, if you’re interested.

Public health policy and nutrition experts are criticizing the message, saying that it’s just a tactic on the part of Coca-Cola to engineer doubt about the contributors to obesity in order to continue selling its products. This is a well-known strategy, most famously used by the tobacco industry in its battle to deny that smoking was hazardous for your health. There’s a great book  (and even a film) on this issue.

There’s lots more to say about the first story, but I’m going to shift to the second one, which is about where the truth is with respect to this message. Just to remind us, here’s the message:

To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories.

What do we know about exercise and body weight? First, science is complicated, and a process as complex as body weight regulation is governed by a lot of factors: genetics, calorie intake, physical activity, maybe to some extent type of food/beverage intake (the science on e.g. sugar and carb intake effects is still in progress), and lots of other things.

But we do know, through loads of studies (here  and here for instance) that physical activity has much less of an effect on body weight than calorie intake does.

There’s evidence here that diet plus exercise interventions have a greater effect on body weight reduction (in the short term) than diet interventions alone. However, we also know that in the long term (which for science and medicine means five years or more), no regiment of diet, exercise, diet plus exercise, or magic potions and incantations results in reliable maintenance of weight loss. Sam and Tracy and others have blogged about this a lot, like here and other places too.

So, as far as we can tell, it’s simply not true that exercise has more of an effect on body weight than calorie intake. In fact, there’s evidence that it has little effect at all on its own.

BUT: exercise does have all sorts of positive effects on our health and well-being.

There’s evidence here that physical activity can prevent, delay, and help slow the development of type 2 diabetes, even in the absence of significant weight loss. Basically, being active is good for what ails ya. You name it, physical activity helps it. Here’s a list from the Centers for Disease Control:

  • Reduces the risk of dying prematurely.
  • Reduces the risk of dying from heart disease.
  • Reduces the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Reduces the risk of developing high blood pressure.
  • Helps reduce blood pressure in people who already have high blood pressure.
  • Reduces the risk of developing colon cancer.
  • Reduces feelings of depression and anxiety.
  • Helps control weight.
  • Helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints.
  • Helps older adults become stronger and better able to move about without falling.
  • Promotes psychological well-being.

But, look—there, item 8: helps control weight. It’s on the CDC list! So maybe those Coca-Cola-funded scientists have a point after all.

Sigh. Okay, one more time: when you dig into the details, you’ll see that the CDC’s message is a complicated one about the role of exercise and weight loss and maintenance. It’s the same one the other medical studies are saying: exercise does burn calories, and exercise is great for your health, but it just turns out that (for a bunch of complicated reasons), exercise is not the key to weight loss.

The good news (which is emerging on a lot of fronts) is that maybe we don’t need a key to weight loss after all. It’s not a door we have to beat down and try to storm through in order to live happy and healthy and active and awesome lives. We need keys to better health, and luckily there are a lot of them around.

The role that sugar-sweetened beverages (like the approximately 470 out of 650 products Coca-Cola sells) plays in obesity is an ongoing area of research (which I won’t discuss here, but probably will sometime). But the point is that trying to address body weight through exercise is bad science and bad medicine.  And however sugary sweet it may be, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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10 thoughts on “Sugar-sweetened science: Coca-Cola, exercise and complexity

  1. Why the comparison to GMOs? I’d say there is consensus that taking in excess calories leads to weight gain. There is no similar consensus that GMOs cause harm. And in fact there won’t be, because it is a technology, analogous to 3d printing in that it can be used to make great products or not such great products.

    1. HI Peggy– you’re right that there’s consensus that taking in calories that tip the energy balance can result in weight gain. What there isn’t consensus on is how that works, and what we can say systematically about the variation of that process across the population. I brought up the GMO issue not because of the status of the technology, but because of the political moves: The Coke-funded scientists are trying to distract people from the complexities of weight management by releasing the message that you can lose weight by simply exercising. Hicks documents that some industry-funded GMO advocates ignore both scientific and policy objections by anti-GMO groups by releasing the simplistic message that GMO crops will help feed the world. Neither of these issues is as simple as the industry-funded groups would have us believe. That’s the problem. Thanks for asking the question, which is a good one.

  2. Great post! When training new personal trainers I emphasize the individual. Nothing works for everyone. For my body it’s always been about activity level for maintaining my health and healthy weight, but as I have gotten older I have been more concerned about the quality of the food that goes into my body. I don’t think that there is one universal truth or magic prescription for all.

    1. HI Amber Lynn– yes, practitioners like you have all sorts of valuable front-line knowledge about how there are so many different paths to health and fitness and wellness. Given our complex lives, we may find some paths easier and some others harder. Luckily, it seems like there are some paths to better health for all of us. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Good read! Since obesity is a multi faceted issue, it is simply weird for anyone trying to fix it with one approach. And who has the gut to say food has no important role in this solution when food is chemistry itself and has the ability to alter human biochemistry?

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