The New York Times recently published a scathing indictment of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), a new group devoted to spreading the gospel of energy balance. In the piece, posted to the Times' Well blog, Anahad O'Connor described the deep financial relationship between GEBN and Coca-Cola:
Since 2008, the company has also provided close to $4 million in funding for various projects to two of the organization’s founding members: Dr. [Steven] Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina whose research over the past 25 years has formed much of the basis of federal guidelines on physical activity, and Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health. Records show that the network’s website, gebn.org, is registered to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, and the company is also listed as the site’s administrator.
GEBN's website pushes one position: Exercise is more important to maintaining a healthy weight than diet. Their proof for this concept comes from a rather straightforward equation.
Easy enough, and very convenient for the bottom line of sugary drink purveyors like Coke. Trying to lose weight? Don't cut out Coke, just run another mile or two on the treadmill! And this is not the first time a major corporation has leaned on this equation, backed by scientists and doctors they've paid, to encourage consumers to, well, consume.
Food science researcher Dr. Barry Popkin explained to Fusion in an email that, “Energy balance simply describes the balance between the calories you eat (energy in) and the calories you use through daily living and activity (energy out),” But, he added, it's not as straightforward as GEBN makes it sound: “However this works for weight gain but not weight loss. It takes much more energy to lose weight than to gain it.”
In her book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, Michele Simon points to energy balance as a term long used by the fast food industry to mislead the public about how to stay healthy. In announcing a new, health-focused public awareness campaign in 2005, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner referred to the importance of energy balance. He said at the time: "One of the best things we can do is communicate the importance of energy balance in an engaging and simple way." And a page on the Nestle Health Science website attributes obesity as the result of an energy imbalance: "As a caloric imbalance is the primary cause of obesity, correcting this imbalance may be the most effective way to address it."
All of these statements skirt the elephant in the room: It matters where calories come from, and processed, low-calorie foods are not the same as naturally low-calorie ones. They also shift responsibility away from themselves and onto their customers: if exercise is the cure for obesity, and you're obese, it's because you're not spending enough time at the gym. Not because some fast foods are designed to be addictive, or because retailers try to nab brand loyalty from children, or because junk food is often dressed up as health food (often to our nation's poorest).
The assumption that exercise is more important then eating well (and less) in achieving weight loss is something health experts agree is flat-out wrong.
To be fair, Blair has been talking about the value of exercise for years before GEBN was formed and has been pulled in repeatedly as an expert on matters of health and exercise. A few years ago, NPR cited Blair in a piece on the health hazards of sitting, describing him as an epidemiologist who “has spent 40 years investigating physical activity and health.”
Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist and critic of the fast food industry, told Fusion in a phone interview that the problem isn't with Blair, but with how his research intersects with obesity. "Blair has got some great work and research on exercise," he said, but "when it comes to weight loss, the evidence is very clear that exercise is negligible. Malhotra has written extensively on the comparative futility of exercise when it comes to weight loss. He wrote in the Washington Post:
Researchers who reviewed surveys of millions of American adults found that physical activity increased between 2001 and 2009, particularly in counties in Kentucky, Georgia and Florida. But the rise in exercise was matched by an increase in obesity in almost every county studied. There were even more striking results in a 2011 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that people who simply dieted experienced greater weight loss than those who combined diet and exercise.
Malhotra believes that exercise is important for health, but that eating less is the most reliable way to lose weight. When asked about the possibility of being overweight and healthy—something Blair has talked about at length—Malhotra answered that a small group of people may fall into this category, like athletes. For the rest of us, he said, a good indication of overall health is waist circumference, which can signify metabolic syndrome in otherwise slender individuals. So don’t believe the hype.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.