Scientists call out junk food companies that blame lack of exercise for their products’ negative health effects

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Fast food companies use tactics reminiscent of Big Tobacco in their efforts to convince people that exercise can make up for the effects of a terrible diet, according to a scorching editorial in theBritish Journal of Sports Medicine authored by scientists from the University of California-Davis, University of Cape Town and Sports Science Institute of South Africa and Frimley Park Hospital in the United Kingdom.

The editorial starts out by noting the strong health benefits that come from exercise. The authors note that getting 30 minutes of exercise five times per week is a better way to prevent and manage nearly all chronic diseases than any drug, and it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and some cancers by more than 30 percent.

However, the idea that exercise alone can prevent obesity – or even that obesity itself is the major risk factor for heart disease or diabetes – is a lie promoted by the fast food industry, they charge.

Obesity debate distracts from poor health

“In the past 30 years, as obesity has rocketed, there has been little change in physical activity levels in the Western population,” the researchers write. “This places the blame for our expanding waist lines directly on the type and amount of calories consumed.”

A widespread popular focus on obesity is also a distraction, the authors warn, from the much more serious health problems caused by a poor diet. They cite recent findings that as many as 40 percent of “normal” body weight people in wealthy countries suffer from metabolic precursors to obesity, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, abnormal lipid levels and fatty liver disease.

According to a recent report in The Lancet, poor diet alone is responsible for more diseases worldwide than physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol combined.

The authors of the paper focus their attention on empty calories in the form of sugar, which has been shown to increase fat storage and appetite, in contrast to dietary fat, which promotes a feeling of fullness. They cite a worldwide econometric analysis that found an 11-fold increase in type 2 diabetes rates for every extra 150 calories of sugar in a country’s diet compared with an equivalent increase in protein or fat calories. This is independent of risk factors such as weight or activity level. The analysis used could be interpreted as proof that sugar was a cause of the increase, they note.

Fast food uses Big Tobacco playbook

The authors say that while these positions are widely accepted among scientists, they are largely ignored among the wider public and policy bodies.

“Instead, members of the public are drowned by an unhelpful message about maintaining a ‘healthy weight’ through calorie counting, and many still wrongly believe that obesity is entirely due to lack of exercise,” they write. “This false perception is rooted in the Food Industry’s Public Relations machinery, which uses tactics chillingly similar to those of big tobacco.”

The researchers particularly condemn ad campaigns linking sugary drinks and junk foodwith sports. “The ‘health halo’ legitimization of nutritionally deficient products must end,” they write.

One of the fast food industry’s major goals with such campaigns, the researchers write, is to defeat measures such as sugary drink taxes or bans on fast food advertising, even though such techniques have been proven much more effective at improving public healththan educational campaigns.

“Changing the food environment – so that individuals’ choices about what to eat default to healthy options – will have a far greater impact on population health than counseling or education,” the researchers write. “Healthy choice must become the easy choice.”

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