Are Big Food Companies Pushing an Exercise and Obesity Myth? Foodie Underground

Are Big Food Companies Pushing an Exercise and Obesity Myth? Foodie Underground


ColumnYou can’t outrun a bad diet, but big food companies want you to think you can.

A healthy lifestyle is one that involves eating well and getting regular physical activity. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that. But are we sold a myth that is only a half truth?

In a world with skyrocketing obesity rates, we are constantly looking for the solution. Do people just need to be more active? Do they just need to make sure they only consume a certain amount of calories every day? An editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine points the finger at big food companies, saying that they have mislead us in the thinking that maintaining a healthy weight is all about calorie counting and exercising.

The authors write that “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. This false perception is rooted in the Food Industry’s Public Relations machinery, which uses tactics chillingly similar to those of big tobacco.”

It’s true that many are more focused on how many calories they consume as opposed to where those calories come from. A 300-calorie fast food burger and a 300-calorie meal made from lentils and leafy greens is an entirely different thing. And if you eat that fast food burger, going for a workout afterwards isn’t necessarily going to help you either.

The authors of the editorial note that in an analysis of worldwide sugar availability, it was shown that for every excess 150 calories of sugar (ie what’s in a can of cola), type 2 diabetes was 11 times more prevalent, compared to when those 150 calories came from fat or protein. Where your calories come from matters.

But big food businesses have big advertising, marketing and lobbying budgets, and they can push any message that they want. “Coca Cola, who spent $3.3 billion on advertising in 2013, pushes a message that ‘all calories count’; they associate their products with sport, suggesting it is ok to consume their drinks as long as you exercise,” write the authors. “However science tells us this is misleading and wrong. It is where the calories come from that is crucial. Sugar calories promote fat storage and hunger. Fat calories induce fullness or ‘satiation’.”

Of course, it’s much easier for these companies to put the blame on the individual consumer than it is to change their business model. If you’re gaining weight it’s your fault for not counting your calories and not exercising enough. It’s certainly not the fault of the company that’s pumping sugar, salt and fat into the economy at enormous rates.

At some point, if we really want to deal with the public health issue then we are going to need to take a stand for government intervention, much like how we dealt with tobacco. But as the authors of the article note, the food industry uses the exact same tactics used by the tobacco industry; tactics that allowed the industry to keep functioning unchecked for decades. “The tobacco industry successfully stalled government intervention for 50 years starting from when the first links between smoking and lung cancer were published. This sabotage was achieved using a ‘corporate playbook’ of denial, doubt, confusing the public and even buying the loyalty of bent scientists, at the cost of millions of lives.”

Want to live a healthy lifestyle? Eat well, get regular exercise. But also, stand up against the big food companies that continue to make us sick.

We all need to take personal responsibility for our health, but these companies should take some corporate responsibility as well.

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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at

Image: Scorpion and Centaurs

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.