Pushing Back Against Big Soda’s Obesity Distortions

Mailman School Scientists Weigh-In on Research Funding and What’s Really Fueling the Obesity Epidemic

August 19, 2015

Recent media revelations have fingered the world’s biggest maker of sugar-sweetened beverages for funding obesity research that focuses on exercise, not consumption of soft drinks. Alert to the greater need to promote evidence-based research, experts at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health spoke out on the issue of research funding and what science really says about fighting unhealthy weight-gain.

In the August 10 New York Times, Anahad O’Connor reported on the front page that Coca-Cola quietly backed the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to push its agenda in medical journals, conferences, and social media. The group’s website asserts that the best way to prevent weight gain was not by diet, “but maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories,” citing two studies funded by Coke.

In response, Claire Wang, co-director of the School’s Obesity Prevention Initiative, and 35 other researchers and officials joined with the Center for Science in the Public Interest to send a letter to the New York Times, calling the Coke research “scientific nonsense,” and citing a 2015 federal report with strong evidence linking sugary drinks and disease. Research shows that someone who is physically active is no less likely to gain excess weight than a sedentary person, and that sedentary behavior is not a driver of the obesity epidemic.

Wang, associate professor of Health Policy and Management, is intimately aware of Big Soda’s scientific distortions. “My own work on energy balance is sometimes misused by the beverage companies and other interest groups in supporting their false claim that as long as people are active, sugar-sweetened beverages can be ‘part of the balanced diet.’” Interest groups often criticize public health interventions to curb consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including taxes, by saying physical activity is what matters. “It’s a false dichotomy,” says Wang.

The Coke episode also underlines the importance of paying attention to funding sources for university researchers, particularly, given a general lack of financial support for physical activity research. Not all corporate funding is tainted, Wang notes, but people need to pay attention to the fine print to make sure the science is conducted with the highest level of integrity, objectivity, and independence.

Research already shows physical activity prevents cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. But more is needed to identify the best ways to get active in their daily lives.  But a gym membership isn’t the solution to obesity. Why not? According to Andrew Rundle, co-director of the Obesity Prevention Initiative and associate professor of Epidemiology, “it takes a huge amount of physical activity to burn off the excess calories many of us eat.” To walk back even a single 16-ounce soda takes as much as 30 minutes of treadmill time. The better strategy is avoiding soda in the first place. Increasingly people are getting the message: the amount of full-calorie soda consumed by Americans has plunged 25 percent since the late 1990s. At the same time, there are promising signs that obesity in children has slowed.