Assume the Position

How Suppositions Become Facts

Buried in the recent furor over the story of Coca-Cola funding for the Global Energy Balance Network is a useful illustration of how suppositions become facts that later wreak havoc. In making their case that the Coca-Cola Company is trying to “sugar-coat the truth,” the editors of the New York Times present a couple of suppositions as absolute truths.

They tell us that obesity trends “are heading in the right direction for public health” and that declining consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is responsible for reversing the trends.

Unfortunately, it’s not so clear that obesity trends are indeed headed in the right direction. It’s no surprise that obesity rates might be reaching a new equilibrium at a much higher level than is acceptable for public health. Smart people who have objectively analyzed the dynamics of the obesity epidemic have predicted this would happen. Simply stated, we are nearing the point where everyone who is susceptible to obesity under current conditions now has it. But people who have obesity are continuing to progress from mild to severe obesity in greater numbers.

So, no, obesity trends are not headed in the right direction for public health.

The burden of obesity-related illness and death is growing. And while declining consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is probably a good thing, overall consumption of sugar is not declining. Supposedly healthy foods like yogurt now often have more sugar than candy bars.

Simply driving consumption of sugar sweetened beverages to zero — by itself — will not be sufficient to reverse the epidemic of obesity.

Boylan Bottling CompanySimplistic answers to complex problems can make a great deal of mischief. Public health recommendations for low-fat everything in the 1980s gave us low-fat cookies, candies, yogurt, and other foods with loads of sugar. An obsession with the specific danger of high-fructose corn syrup is bringing us artisanal soda, sweetened with natural cane sugar, now available at your favorite fast food franchise.

Though fixating upon a few villains might be satisfying in the short term, it is a distraction from real solutions for the long term.

Coca-Cola is earning their criticism by concerning themselves with promoting physical activity when their business is in beverages. If they cannot address the healthfulness of their products — including how they are marketed and consumed — their business will continue to be threatened.That is Coke’s problem.

The larger problem is to genuinely understand what will work to reverse the trends we see in the burden of disease caused by obesity. Seizing upon suppositions and taking them as facts may serve an ideological agenda. It will not address this larger problem.

Click here to read the editorial in the New York Times.

Assume the Position, photograph © Jess Loughborough / flickr

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August 17, 2015