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 By Jeffrey O'Connor

Coca Cola backed study : ‘Lack of Exercise, Not your Diet, Makes You Fat.”

Headlines that challenge long-held health and diet wisdom usually cause two things:  1) Gets lots of people to read the supporting article 2)  Prompts most to scrutinize the research sponsor and motivation.  FIT looks to keep these types of discussions transparent, and so feels compelled to discuss a New York Times article from August 9, 2015 which trumpeted this research conclusion “Coca Cola funds scientists who shift blame for obesity away from bad diets

The research sponsor, Global Energy Balance Network, (GEBN) was launched in 2014, with a hefty $1.5 million dollar check from Coca Cola.   GEBN’s position is clear:  You can eat anything you want, you just have to exercise enough to burn it off.   Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist and GEBN’s vice president, says “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.”

So many things misleading in this quote, but let’s focus on two.   First, 95% of soda is sweetened with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), not with sugar, so that ‘sugary’ term probably misleads.  Second, complex processes like weight gain almost never possess a single cause, so it’s not news that a single cause cannot be identified.   Further, this statement buries the fact that weight gain and diet correlate very closely, a fact reflected in renowned university studies and USDA guidance, specifically:

  • Forty years of Harvard University research found a direct correlation between obesity rates and diets of syrupy sweetened high calorie sodas (again, 95% of sodas are HFCS-sweetened, so  your soda most likely contains NO sugar)
  • USDA guidelines on weight maintenance are based on diet (calories consuming food and beverages) as primary gauge for weight management.
  • FDA has even issued guidelines for consuming natural sugar, but none for syrupy substitutes, such as HFCS.

So this finding, in fact, probably restates the obvious: for superiorly fit individuals, diet has less impact on weight than it does for the general (non-active or sedentary) population.  Most of us could logically surmise the super fitness correlation on diet without bothering with the research.  Further, we would rule out any applicability to ourselves!  And it completely excludes the clinically supported fact that high soda consumption does have a pronounced negative effect on weight and health.  Demand for soda continues to drop materially, while soda use and excise taxes drive up soda price to customers.   Over the last two decades soda sales have seen a 25% drop and Coca Cola is digging into its deep pockets to convince you that Coke is Still the Real Thing and part of a healthy diet.   So who’s interested in circulating this research news that gives permission to consume without consequences?  (Hint:  Not top athletes…) Soda manufacturers, certainly.

GEBNs website is registered to donor Coke, who also covers the website’s maintenance costs. The optics of this donation suggest that GEBN’s very mouthpiece is subject to undue influence by Coke.  We welcome diverse research if it is objective.  We seek it out.   The research parameters in the Coke-funded studies we will attempt to secure and report back on in an upcoming blog.  For now, the objective data in this published report and the facts below imply a likely probability that GEBN is not free to present a balanced set of facts if they do not support sales of Coke.  Three other matters also call to question GEBN’s independence:

  • GEBN’s website omitted mention of Coke as donor until research disclosure was made public.
  • GEBN latest two reports include these disclosures “The publication of this article was supported by The Coca-Cola Company.” 
  • Since 2008, Coca Cola has provided over $4 million dollars in research funding to GEBN’s founding members, Dr. Blair and Dr. Gregory Hand.

Our Takeaway:  Most among us do not exercise enough to heed the findings outlined in GEBN’s research; the study’s intent is purely commercial and may even pose a public-health risk by discouraging a focus on diet.  For most of us, diet has a MAJOR effect on our weight and health.  This common sense view is supported by objective data from reliable, unbiased sources like Harvard and the USDA.  The greater incidence of high calorie diets comprised of ever-larger doses of processed syrupy additives such as HFCS correlates with –and is linked by some studies –to the rise of obesity and many other disorders.

Despite attempts by GEBN to divert attention away from scrutinizing your diet, remain diligent regarding what you consume.   In particular, consumers concerned about making healthy changes are well advised to find alternatives to HFCS- sweetened soda.  Switch to natural sweeteners such as sugar in moderation and stay away from chemicals manufactured in factories that happen to have a sweet taste.  Finally, be mindful of a very telling pair of facts:

1) Per capita consumption of “sugar” in 2009 was the same as the per capita consumption of sugar in 1909 – so rising obesity rates in US are a function of factors OTHER than consuming larger quantities of sugar.

2) By contrast, HFCS consumption has skyrocketed concurrent with rising diabetes and obesity rates.