Is obesity simply about a lack of “balance”? Why Big Food wants you to be fit

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Image Credit: Todd Hryckowian

This blog was commisioned from Yoni Freedhoff to coincide with the final week of the PLoS Medicine series on Big Food - eight articles published over 3 weeks that examine the activities and influence of the food and beverage industry in global health. The editors explain why they commissioned the series.  Join the debate on twitter #plosmedbigfood and comment on the articles.


Coca Cola calls it an “active balanced lifestyle,”  McDonald’s a “balanced active lifestyle,” General Mills a “balanced and healthy lifestyle,” Unilever a “balanced diet and lifestyle,” Mars a “well-balanced lifestyle,” while Nestle and PepsiCo refer to it as “a balanced lifestyle.”

What is “it”?

It” is what you need to do to maintain or establish a healthy weight.  Just “balance” your energy in with your own “energy out.”  Easy, no?

Yoni Freedhoff

It’s a brilliant strategy for the food industry as it not only shifts the blame away from the consumption of their calorific products, but it provides them with an incredibly robust and ethically unchallengeable marketing platform – fitness.

Cadbury, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are currently using that platform in their roles as the 2012 London Olympic’s primary sponsors.   Cadbury launched its largest ever marketing campaign literally selling chocolate gold medals, Coca-Cola is running the Olympic Torch across Europe handing out “happiness” wherever they go, while McDonald’s built the world’s largest restaurant and created Olympic mascot branded Happy Meals.  Truly the emotions tied to the games are a marketer’s dream – joy, perseverance, celebration and health – and by the transpositional nature of marketing psychology, those emotions will be unconsciously tied to the sponsors’ brands.

Of course the food industry’s promotion of physical activity isn’t just about straight sales, it’s also about being part of “the solution” and affording the food industry with a bully pulpit from which to respond to criticism.  A few weeks ago I had a bit of a Twitter scuffle with two Directors of Coca-Cola Canada.  They were responding to criticisms of Coca-Cola’s partnership with ParticipACTION, a Canadian national non-profit organization designed to promote healthy living and physical fitness.  While it would be difficult to defend sugared soda as part of a healthy lifestyle, it wasn’t difficult for these Directors to point at their involvement in getting kids “moving” as proof they were the good guys in the story, though last time I checked the consumption of sugar water was just as bad for moving kids as unmoving ones.

Being part of the solution also provides the food industry with ammunition to draw upon in their fight against industry unfriendly legislative efforts.  For instance back in 2010 Coca-Cola’s President Sandy Douglas used their involvement in the promotion of fitness in his Atlanta Journal Constitution op-ed opposing soda taxes:

And we’re for active lifestyles, with more than 6 billion Diet Coke packages helping the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute remind women about the importance of staying active and maintaining a healthy weight, and our support of physical activity initiatives like Exercise Is Medicine.

Obesity is a serious problem. But we can overcome it if we all work together. At Coca-Cola, we’re playing our part in helping develop and support workable solutions. Let’s stop pointing fingers and start working together productively. I think we’ll discover we burn more calories that way.

So is obesity about burnt calorie insufficiencies?  Doubly labeled water studies suggest that we’re burning as many today as we did back in the early 1980s (Westerterp, 2008); objective UK accelerometry data found that in 5-8 year old children even a tenfold difference in activity levels didn’t associate with weight or body fat percentage (Metcalf, 2007); while the CARDIA trial revealed that over the course of 20 years if you’re a man and you exercise 1hr/day, 6 days a week you’ll gain only 127 fewer grams a year than if you exercised less than 15mins/day and if you’re a woman and do the same you’ll gain 311 fewer grams (Hankinson, 2010).  But you’ll still gain.

Ultimately it seems quite clear, we’re eating too many calories, and while “moving” is crucial to good health and there’s no denying it does burn calories, if weights are the consideration, we’re going to have eat markedly less of them, and for the food industry, eating less is decidedly bad for business.

And business is what all of this is about.  Just ask Coca-Cola’s chief marketer Joe Tripodi who in 2011 provided these quotes to the Wall Street Journal:

If we can get 40 million-plus fans, or even some subset of them talking positively about the things we’re doing, ultimately that’s a good thing for us.

And by “good thing” Mr. Tripodi clarifies he means sales,

 I think it’s probably a leading indicator of potential sales.

And what kind of sales does Mr. Tripodi hope for?

We want to double our business in basically a decade.

And why wouldn’t they?  It’s the food industry’s fiduciary responsibility to increase profits where in these cases profits are being made on the intuitive, erroneous and commonly held belief that we can “balance” increased intake with increased output.

While I will readily agree there’s likely no behaviour more conducive to good health than exercise, regardless of how badly the food industry wants you to forget it, weight’s about food far more than it is about fitness and for the food industry being tied to fitness ultimately sells food.


Westerterp K, Speakman J  Physical activity energy expenditure has not declined since the 1980s and matches energy expenditures of wild mammals International Journal of Obesity, 2008;32 (8):1256-1263

Metcalf BS, Voss LD, Hosking J, Alison JN, Wilkin TJ Physical activity at the government recommended level and obesity related health outcomes: a longitudinal study. Arch Dis Child 2008;93:772-777

Hankinson A, Daviglus M, Bouchard C, Carnethon M, Lewis C, Schreiner P, Liu K, Sidney S. Maintaining a High Physical Activity Level Over 20 Years and Weight Gain JAMA 2010;304 (23):2603-2610


Yoni Freedhoff is an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Ottawa where he’s the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute dedicated to inter-disciplinary, non-surgical weight management since 2004.  Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award winning blog Weighty Matters and is also easily reachable on Twitter (  Look for Dr. Freedhoff’s book on the fallacies and future of modern day dieting to be published by Simon & Schuster’s Free Press in Spring 2013.

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