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.
A statement posted on the Coca-Cola Web site on Monday, from the company’s chief technical officer Ed Hays, included this statement: “At Coke, we believe that a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle and that is reflected in both our long-term and short-term business actions.”
GEBN sent a statement from James Hill, which said: “Recent media reports suggesting that the work of my colleagues and me promotes the idea that exercise is more important than diet in addressing obesity vastly oversimplifies this complex issue? I can say unequivocally that diet is a critical component of weight control, as are exercise, stress management, sleep, and environmental and other factors.”
Grundy said the issue of funding for obesity research by Coca-Cola was “a difficult topic” and “extremely complicated.”
“People are going to ask questions,” he said.
Coca-Cola contributed US$1.5 million last year toward the creation of the Global Energy Balance Network and administers its Web site, according to the New York Times.
The organization has “assembled a distinguished group of scientists from around the world” to serve as its founding leadership, according to the group’s Web site. And it lists members of an international executive committee, which “operates independently of its various funders.”
Barry Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, compared Coca-Cola funding scientists involved in obesity research to tobacco companies historically “enlisting” experts to become “merchants of doubt” about the harmful effects of cigarettes.
“Essentially, Coke is following the strategy used by the tobacco industry as they tried to create doubt among the general public and also politicians. It was very effective in the fights to regulate cigarettes and we have learned from this that it is essential to address these attempts and uncover what they are very rapidly,” he said.
Popkin said the role of physical activity is important in the issue of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCD) associated with being overweight or obese — conditions which affect two-thirds of American adults, according to the US government.
“However, obesity and NCD scholars and the WHO and many other bodies have all realized that for prevention, we must change our diet,” said Popkin. “First and foremost this is sugary sweetened beverages.”
Barbara Hansen, another member of the expert panel that devised the clinical guidelines on obesity for the National Institutes of Health, and director of preclinical research at the University of South Florida, specializing in obesity and diabetes, said that overall calorie consumption is more relevant than exercise or type of food.
“Two cans of Coke is only a small amount out of a 2,000-calorie diet — it’s not Coke, it’s the total calories counted in a day that’s the critical point,” she said.
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