Coca-Cola, valued around $180 billion as one of the most profitable companies in the world, is reportedly bankrolling scientists to promote a new approach to tackling the obesity epidemic: Don’t worry so much about maintaining a healthy diet, and simply focus on exercising more.
According to a report from the New York Times, Coca-Cola spent $1.5 million last year to help start a new organization called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which downplays the importance of avoiding sugary drinks and fast food in order to maintain a healthy weight.
Instead, GEBN advocates a different approach to “energy balance,” which is the term for the calculus between the amount of calories an individual consumes versus the amount of energy they expend as they move through the world.
In order to lose weight, you can alter your balance by consuming fewer calories, expending more energy through physical activity, or both. GEBN is primarily concerned with the second part of the equation. The scientists involved with the new group say that the current conversation is too focused on diet and should be shifted toward exercise.
“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,” GEBN’s vice president says in a video about the organization’s mission. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
It’s undoubtedly true that exercising is good for you, for reasons that go beyond weight. But it’s not necessarily true that exercise is the most important element of the energy balance equation, as GEBN claims on its website.
In fact, recent scientific evidence suggests that, in terms of weight loss strategies, dietary changes are actually more effective than increased physical activity — partly because exercise increases appetite, and partly because exercise expends fewer calories than you might imagine. Thirty minutes of jogging or swimming, for example, only burns about 350 calories. An easier way to avoid those 350 calories would be to skip drinking two 16-ounce sodas.
Several public health experts told the Times they’re concerned that the soda company is attempting to mislead the public about the root causes of obesity in an effort to protect its own bottom line, particularly as soda sales have been declining.
“Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and the author of Soda Politics, said. Nestle also referred to GEBN as simply a “front group” for the soda industry.
The scientists involved with GEBN say that their ties to Coca-Cola shouldn’t invalidate their work. Dr. James Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the president of the group, told the New York Times that he relied on Coke’s money because he couldn’t get the funds from his university to start the organization, but the soda giant is not “running the show.”
However, there’s plenty of previous evidence that food and beverage companies use scientists to shape issues of public health in favor of their own interests. Scientific research that’s backed by the food industry is more likely to return favorable results for those products. A 2013 study, for example, found that scientists who receive funding from the food industry deny the relationship between sugary drinks and weight gain five times more often than scientists who don’t receive that type of financial support. One study backed by the soda industry actually found that drinking diet soda can help people lose weight.
Coke is hardly above these tactics. Earlier this year, Coca-Cola made headlines for recruiting scientists to help rebrand its products as a healthy snack option. Despite little evidence that soda is a healthy option even in moderation, Coke worked with health experts to place op-eds and blog posts hailing its new miniature cans as the right way to approach portion control.