Coca-Cola: We’re Not Making You Fat, You’re Just Lazy!

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article that made me furious.

Let me clarify: the article is very well-researched and well-written. It’s what it revealed that made me so angry.

The article, titled Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets, opens with the following paragraph:

Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new “science-based” solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories.

As someone with an educational background in nutrition and extensive experience in the weight loss industry, I find Coca-Cola’s advice appalling and deceitful.

No, deceitful is not a strong enough word…nefarious is more accurate.

You see, Coca-Cola has bought teamed up with some prominent scientists who have quite a bit of influence in the nutrition and weight loss fields of research to get them to promote their bullsh!t about soda being part of a healthful diet.

More and more studies have shown links between soda intake and health problems including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, gout, damage to bones and teeth, kidney damage, certain cancers, and high blood pressure.

In a recent study, researchers from Tufts University looked at information from 62 dietary surveys from 51 countries as well as data on the national availability of sugar from 187 countries. The surveys included data collected from 611,971 individuals between 1980 and 2010.

They focused on sugar-sweetened sodas, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks, sweetened ice teas, and homemade sugary drinks such as frescas that contained at least 50 calories per serving. Beverages that were 100 percent fruit juice were excluded.

The frightening findings? Sugary beverages may have been responsible for 133,000 deaths from diabetes, 45,000 from cardiovascular disease, and 6,450 from cancer.

“This is a single dietary factor with no intrinsic health value causing tens of thousands of deaths per year,” said study coauthor Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University.

A study recently published in The BMJ found an association between regular consumption of sugary drinks and the onset of type 2 diabetes independent of obesity.

Researchers looked at 17 cohorts and more than 38,000 cases, and found that higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with an 18 percent increase in incidence of type 2 diabetes per one serving a day.

I could go on and on, citing study after study, but…I think by now we all realize that soda is not a healthful beverage.

Soda has absolutely NO redeeming qualities. None. It is completely devoid of nutrients. 

Back to Coca-Cola and their new scheme:

The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media. To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.

In a recent video announcing the new organization, the group’s vice president, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, made the following outrageous statement:

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.

Hmm. Harvard – among many other respected institutions – disagrees.

From Harvard’s Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet:

Rising consumption of sugary drinks has been a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

A 20-year study on 120,000 men and women found that people who increased their sugary drink consumption by one 12-ounce serving per day gained more weight over time—on average, an extra pound every 4 years—than people who did not change their intake. Other studies have found a significant link between sugary drink consumption and weight gain in children. One study found that for each additional 12-ounce soda children consumed each day, the odds of becoming obese increased by 60% during 1½ years of follow-up.

In the promotional video, Blair said this, and it is a bunch o’bull:

It’s very clear that around the world the populations are getting fatter. The big problem is we don’t really know the cause other than, well, too many people are eating more calories than they burn on too many days. But maybe the reason they’re eating more calories than they need is because they’re not burning many. So we need to be in balance. We need to be in energy balance and at a healthy level, which means getting a proper amount of physical activity.

Why is that bull, you ask?

Let’s look at how much exercise a person has to do to burn off ONE 12 ounce can of Coke, which is 140 calories.

This information is from Coca-Cola’s own handy “Work it Out Calculator.” Oh, important note – you don’t get to enter your body weight into this tool – the calculations are based on the energy expenditure of a 132 lb woman (60 kg).  If you weigh less, you’ll likely burn less calories, and if you weigh more, you’ll likely burn more.

  • Aerobics: 22 minutes
  • Spin class: 14 minutes
  • Jogging: 17 minutes
  • Swimming: 18 minutes
  • Cycling: 36 minutes
  • Climbing stairs: 19 minutes
  • Mowing the lawn: 21 minutes
  • Walking: 30 minutes
  • Tennis: 21 minutes

Keep in mind that those figures are based on ONE CAN of soda.

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, nearly half of Americans drink soda every day.

The average amount consumed is 2.6 glasses a day, the poll found.

Soda consumption was higher among young adults, with 56 percent of 18 to 34 year olds reporting they drink at least one glass of soda per day, compared with 46 percent of people ages 35 to 54.

Is Blair this stupid? Probably not. Surely he knows most Americans are not going to burn off even one can of soda per day – much less two or more.

No, I’d say Blair – remember, he’s an exercise scientist – is likely very aware that Americans don’t get enough exercise as it is, and certainly aren’t going to do EXTRA activity to burn off the crappy junk “food” he’s so shamelessly defending. According to the CDC, only 21% of adults get enough exercise, and less than 3 in 10 high school students get enough physical activity (and the CDC’s exercise recommendations are pretty reasonable).

In fact, as The New York Times points out…

Health experts say this message is misleading and part of an effort by Coke to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the spread of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. They contend that the company is using the new group to convince the public that physical activity can offset a bad diet despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight compared with what people consume.

And, Coca-Cola is simplifying what is actually a very complex issue – calorie balance. The company and it’s hired “experts” may try to convince people that as long as they do enough exercise to burn off the calories in soda, or that as long as they stay within their recommended daily caloric intake (which is also a very complex issue), they’ll be fine, but that simply is not true. In order for that claim to be accurate, the idea that “a calorie is a calorie” would have to be correct. Studies conducted over the last decade show that all calories are NOT created equal: that is, calories from sugar are more easily turned into body fat than calories from dietary fat are turned into body fat.

Blair’s proclamation that there is “virtually no compelling evidence” that poor eating habits are to blame for the obesity epidemic is not supported by research.

In fact, research contradicts his claim. Many studies have shown that to lose weight, eating less is FAR more important than exercising more.

And, maintaining weight loss is easier when people limit their intake of high glycemic foods such as sugary drinks and other refined carbohydrates, which sharply raise blood sugar. (Psst, Blair and crew: Coke is a sugary drink.)

While exercise helps with weight loss, diet is far more important. You just can’t outrun a bad diet.

So, what’s really going on here?

Coca-Cola is desperate because their sales are slipping. In recent years there’s been a significant increase in public backlash about the health risks associated with soda consumption.

So, last year, Coke donated $1.5 million to start Global Energy Balance Network.

Oh – and the company also has given Blair and another founding member some serious dough over the last few years:

Since 2008, Coke has also provided close to $4 million in funding for various projects to two of the organization’s founding members: Dr. 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.

And, guess who is running Global Energy Balance Network’s website?

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.

As if all of this isn’t disturbing enough, the group’s president, James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is one of the founders of The National Weight Control Registry. He’s published studies that show that people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off consume – wait for it – a low calorie diet.

Dr. Hill also has financial ties to Coca-Cola. Last year, the company gave an “unrestricted monetary gift” of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation. In response to a request made under the Colorado Open Records Act, the university said that Coca-Cola had provided the money “for the purposes of funding” the Global Energy Balance Network.

Go figure.

Experts pointed out the problems with this “partnership”:

Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Coke’s support of prominent health researchers was reminiscent of tactics used by the tobacco industry, which enlisted experts to become “merchants of doubt” about the health hazards of smoking.

Marion Nestle, the author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was especially blunt: “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.”

To support the preposterous claims the new group is making, it posted two research papers on its website that “show” the key to preventing weight gain is not reducing food intake, but exercising more.

Both papers were funded by none other than…Coca-Cola.

The funding of studies by Big Food isn’t anything new, which is unfortunate, because studies show that such funding tends to bias findings:

A recent analysis of beverage studies, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts.

Earlier this year, Coca-Cola began partnering with so-called “fitness experts” and nutritionists to promote a mini-can of Coke as a “healthy” snack. Robyn Flipse, a registered dietitian who is on Coca-Cola’s payroll, stated that “portion-controlled versions of your favorites, like Coca-Cola mini cans, packs of almonds or pre-portioned desserts for a meal” will help “you manage your weight for better heart health.” 

Another “expert,” Norma Rixter, recommends that you “limit yourself to a single-serving – one 100-calorie snack or look for a refreshing beverage option such as a mini can of Coca-Cola.” At the very bottom of her article you will find a description of Mrs. Rixter’s credentials. It reads,“Norma Rixter is certified as a Personal Trainer and Sports Nutritionist who helps individuals, businesses including The Coca-Cola Company.”

In conclusion…

If you want to drink soda, by all means, please do. I’m not here to tell you what to do with your body.

But be wary of health claims that don’t make sense – especially those that are made by companies that are looking to profit from your decisions. I’m not saying that all research that is funded by industry or special interest groups is flawed or biased, but extra scrutiny is warranted. Ask yourself if the claims being made are consistent with what you already know. Find out if independently funded studies have produced similar results.

Don’t be fooled by official-looking studies authored by people with fancy credentials. Do some digging if a claim seems suspicious.

About the author

Lisa Egan

Lisa is a researcher and writer who lives in the outskirts of D.C. She has a BS in Health Science with a concentration in Nutrition. Lisa has worked as a personal trainer and nutritionist and is a certified hypnotherapist. She enjoys helping people learn about how to improve their health.

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