August 12, 2015

Do Coke-funded obesity messages leave a bad taste?



Group Health Physician and GHRI Associate Investigator Beverly Green, MD, MPH, weighs in on obesity advice from a group sponsored by Coca-Cola.

by Beverly Green, MD, MPH

Dr. Green is an associate investigator at Group Health Research Institute and a physician at Group Health.

I read The New York Times story “Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away from Bad Diets.” It takes the Global Energy Balance Network to task because it is funded by the Coca-Cola company and it advises getting more exercise—and worrying less about cutting calories—to maintain a healthy weight. It’s an interesting story with an unclear message.

I agree with the Network’s general message that energy balance matters: For weight to remain neutral, calories consumed need to equal calories used. But on the other hand, a really fast way to take in too many calories is to eat high-calorie snacks (candy bars) or drink them (colas). You can drink 12 ounces of cola (one can) in a mere minute. By contrast, it takes an effort and about 30 minutes to walk off the extra calories, or 10–15 minutes of running. And 12 ounces of soda is now considered the “small” size.

Coca-Cola’s sales have been falling in the United States, and I have noticed more ads for Dasani (their bottled water). Coca-Cola could make other healthy drinks: for instance, tea without sugar or with sugar substitutes. One can also make an argument against plastic bottles in general as being bad for the environment.

In terms of the Network’s Coke-funded scientists, it’s hard to know to what degree there is a conflict of interest. I recognize some of the names as leaders in the physical activity movement. Dr. James Hill, for instance, led a very successful pedometer program in the state of Colorado that was adopted nationally.

It is not clear that the Network is purposively trying to derail the health of Americans. It is getting increasingly difficult to get research funding from nonprofit agencies, and Pharma funds most newly developed medications, many that are lifesaving. Conflicts of interest need to be declared, but they do not necessarily mean the organization is “bad.” Physical activity is clearly good for us all, and it’s very important in health and in healthy aging, even when it does not result in weight loss.