Sat, Aug 15, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Tobacco industry redux

A nonprofit that studies obesity downplays the role of junk food in weight gain

By Joanna Walters  /  The Guardian, New York

Signs for Burger King and Tim Hortons are shown at locations in Ottawa, Ontario last August.

Photo: AP

Leading nutrition experts have expressed alarm over a US pressure group led by scientists that downplays the risks of junk food and sugary drinks in favor of exercise in the fight against obesity — and receives funding from soft drinks giant Coca-Cola.

The Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), a non-profit organization promoting research into the causes of obesity, focuses its message on the need for people to increase their physical activity as the key to achieving a healthy weight.

In a video announcing the aims of the organization, Steven Blair, a spokesman for the organization and a professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, says the world needs to be educated about getting the right amount of physical activity.

“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. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause,” Blair says in a promotional video issued by the group earlier this year.

He speaks while the video shows images of a man eating a can of Pringles potato chips, a serving of french fries with ketchup and plastic bottles of soda with the labels turned away, but one of which clearly resembles Coca-Cola.

The organization states on its website that it is supported financially by Coca-Cola, among others. The link to Coca-Cola was highlighted Monday in an article in the New York Times questioning the links between the nonprofit organization and the company.

The organization’s posts on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook concentrate heavily on various aspects of the importance of exercise in the weight and health debate, with less attention on food.

The group’s president is James Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado school of medicine, and listed as a founding member is Gregory Hand, dean of West Virginia University’s school of public health. Its Web site claims the group wants to be the “voice of science” in research on obesity.

But other prominent scientists have expressed concern over the organization’s focus and funding.

“The more food intake and the more calories the more weight you gain, and the less you exercise the more you will gain. But in the bigger picture it’s food intake over exercise that dominates as a cause of obesity — you cannot exercise your way out of overeating, that’s kind of a misguided idea,” said Scott Grundy, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern medical center, told the Guardian.

Grundy was a member of the expert panel that devised the current clinical guidelines on obesity issued by the US government’s National Institutes of Health. Although they were published in 1998, Grundy said the findings and guidelines are just as accurate and relevant today.

“It’s sad not to see children out playing as much as they used to, running around and burning up calories, and a lot of obesity in kids is related to lack of exercise. But by and large it’s still about eating too much,” said Grundy.

James Hill was also a member of that panel and has served on committees on weight loss for the WHO. The Guardian requested comment from Hill, Blair, the GEBN and Coca-Cola.

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