Who’s Conspiring to Make Us All Fat?

A new editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine starts with an interesting discussion of misperceptions about what exercise can and can’t do for obesity. Then it takes a hard turn toward questions about who’s conspiring to make us all fat.

These are two very different questions that should be kept separate, but Aseem Malhotra and colleagues have mashed them together in their editorial by saying:

Many still wrongly believe that obesity is entirely due to lack of exercise. This false perception is rooted in the Food Industry’s Public Relations machinery, which uses tactics chillingly similar to those of big tobacco.

Begging pardon, we feel compelled to point out that any number of health, fitness, and policy experts have managed to confuse this subject without much help from the food industry. Let’s start with the Let’s Move! campaign to fight obesity. Though its branding, this program could not be any clearer about putting physical activity first for fighting obesity.

Even expert medical sources, like the Mayo Clinic, regularly dispense tips on losing weight through exercise. So, it seems unlikely that we can blame the big bad food industry for confusion about exercise and weight loss.

The real problem is that the messaging is a bit tricky. Exercise is great for health and for preventing weight gain. Good nutrition works better when it’s paired with physical activity. But by itself, exercise won’t make you drop an impressive amount of weight — no matter how much people want to believe it.

University of Colorado Professor Jim Hill points out that the “inactivity industry” may bear equal responsibility for the rise of obesity, saying:

Bill Gates has probably caused as much obesity as junk food. We’ve got to quit debating whether it’s diet or physical activity. We have to do both.

The comparisons between tobacco and food are growing a little tired. There’s nothing wrong with holding the food industry accountable for contributing to obesity. But food is essential. Tobacco is not.

Hyperbolic argumentation that assumes food and tobacco are equivalent is unhelpful.

Click here to read the editorial, here to read more from Live Science, and here to read more from ConscienHealth.

Terror, photograph © young shanahan / flickr

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6 Responses to “Who’s Conspiring to Make Us All Fat?”

  1. April 24, 2015 at 9:16 am, Michelle M. Brown said:

    My 7 and 10 year old see the connection between food industry and the exercise myth. Last year Ronald McDonald (!) visited their school (why do we let McDonalds into public schools again?) to tell them that exercise was important. My kids continue to talk about how that doesn’t make sense. Yes, I’ve educated my children so I expect them to see through this, but still, if you control the conversation….. So, I think its a reasonable assessment, if not the only way to see it.

  2. April 24, 2015 at 8:17 pm, Ted said:

    Good point.

  3. April 27, 2015 at 3:12 pm, Karl J. Kaiyala, Ph.D said:

    While it’s hard to dispute that obesity pathogenesis has multiple causes, it’s both telling and troubling that this post of Concienhealth so glibly treats the massively important role of the food industry in the causal roots of the obesity epidemic. Dr. J.O. Hill’s risible effort to deflect attention to the role of activity in obesity (“Bill Gates has probably caused as much obesity as junk food”) seems emblematic of the problem of “authority capture” in the shaping of the public health narrative directed at the prevention and treatment of obesity (Dr. Hill has deep ties to the food industry). Citing First Lady Obama’s focus on activity seems similarly disingenuous owing to clear indications that a massive surge in food industry lobbying effectively quashed her initial focus on the primacy of the nutritional environment in obesity. Is Concienhealth just another filter for the dissemination of food industry-friendly narratives on obesity causation?

  4. April 27, 2015 at 3:47 pm, Ted said:

    Thanks for sharing your view, Karl. The short answer to your question is no. ConscienHealth has no interests in the food industry, apart from the fact that its staff consumes food. Words like “glib,” “disingenuous,” and “risible” convey disrespect more than they convey any factual observations.

  5. April 28, 2015 at 11:30 pm, Karl J. Kaiyala, Ph.D said:

    Ted, I’d argue that my comments convey an angry measure of skepticism informed by an obesity and diabetes-related science career spanning more than two decades, and even more importantly, based on my experience in raising a daughter (now 12) in an environment saturated with relentless pressure to consume refined calorie-laden snacks and drinks at every possible opportunity, e.g., school sports (that one especially irritates me). That pressure is, inarguably, a product of the food industry’s brilliant efforts on behalf of normalizing recreational caloric intake, which is inarguably a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

    It is easy to document J.O. Hill’s connections to the food industry. Michelle Obama’s industry-driven pivot from a focus on food to one directed at activity is documented as well. More broadly, the machinations of the food industry in respect to maximizing product sales are abundantly documented. I’d be happy to cite all of that.

    So a major contributor to the obesity epidemic is, in my opinion, hiding in plain sight. Of course it profits many, including many obesity researchers, to aver otherwise. Sure, many propose additional factors, many with merit, but all those highly refined and relentlessly promoted junk calories that push all the right reward-related buttons ought to get the lion’s share of blame.

  6. April 29, 2015 at 3:40 am, Ted said:

    Thanks for sharing your opinion, Karl. I happen to respect Jim Hill, as do many wise and objective people in this field of research.