NEW YORK • Coca-Cola, the world's largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new "science-based" solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories.
The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media.
To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new non-profit organisation called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to 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," the group's vice- president, Dr Steven Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video announcing the new organisation.
"And there's really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause."
"It takes three miles of walking to offset that one can of Coke."
DR BARRY POPKIN, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Three miles is 4.8km
Health experts say this message is misleading and part of an effort by Coke to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the spread of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
They contend that the company is using the new group to convince the public that physical activity can offset a bad diet despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight, compared with what people consume.
This clash over the science of obesity comes in a period of rising efforts to tax sugary drinks, remove them from schools and stop companies from marketing them to children. In the last two decades, consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has dropped by 25 per cent.
Coke's involvement in the new organisation is not the only example of corporate-funded research and advocacy to come under fire lately. The American Society for Nutrition and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have been criticised by public health advocates for forming partnerships with various food companies, including Kraft Foods, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Hershey's.
In recent years, Coke has donated money to build fitness centres in more than 100 schools across the United States. It sponsors a programme called "Exercise is Medicine" to encourage doctors to prescribe physical activity to patients. And when Chicago's City Council proposed a soda tax in 2012 to help address its obesity problem, Coca- Cola donated US$3 million (S$4 million) to establish fitness programmes in more than 60 of the city's community centres.
While people can lose weight in several ways, many studies suggest that those who keep it off for good consume fewer calories.
There is growing evidence suggesting that maintaining weight loss is easier when people limit their intake of high-glycemic foods such as sugary drinks and other refined carbohydrates, which sharply raise blood sugar.
Physical activity is important and certainly helps, experts say. But studies show that exercise increases appetite, causing people to consume more calories.
Exercise also expends far fewer calories than most people think. A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, for example, contains 140 calories and roughly 10 teaspoons of sugar.
Dr Barry Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said: "It takes three miles (4.8km) of walking to offset that one can of Coke."
NEW YORK TIMES