Broscience – The Energy Balance Edition
Via the New York Times, Coca Cola is trying to impress us with broscience and teach us that if we want to focus on maintaining a healthy weight, focus on exercise and not cutting calories, all in the name of “Energy Balance” – the balance between calories consumed and calories through physical activity.
The organization, hilariously called the Global Energy Balance Network (“GEBN”) wants to sell its message. From its website:
“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, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video announcing the new organization. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
Given my recently increased impatience towards and all around bullshit peddled by worthless shills trying to blow smoke up our backsides, I feel the need to address this.
By now, my three loyal readers should know that things like pseudoscience, junk science, bro-science it warms the cockles of my heart when people move goalposts and try to pull the wool over my eyes. This “there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause” is just that as well as the same correlation vs. causation tactic tobacco industry shills tried to sell when they argued that cigarettes didn’t cause cancer despite overwhelming evidence of correlation between weight gain and poor diet. Is it any wonder that the person on the video has a background in exercise and not nutrition? What nutritionist in his or her right mind would make this kind of claim? More:
It’s very clear that around the world the populations are getting fatter. The big problem is we don’t really know the cause other than, well, too many people are eating more calories than they burn on too many days. But maybe the reason they’re eating more calories than they need is because they’re not burning many. So we need to be in balance. We need to be in energy balance and at a healthy level, which means getting a proper amount of physical activity.
The GEBN is trying to create an impression of doubt where no doubt exists. If we know that people are consuming more calories than their bodies can burn, we can guess that it’s one of three possibilities: people are eating too much, exercising too little or some combination of both. Since the GEBN wants to focus on physical activity, let’s do just that.
Question: how many calories can untrained or lightly trained individuals burn during exercise? Lyle McDonald thinks that it is in the 5 to 10 calories per minute range for sustained exercise. For untrained/lightly trained individuals, I’d say five is the right number as 10 calories per minute requires the kind of moderately intense exercise that untrained individuals can’t sustain. Assume an exercise period of between 20 to 30 minutes and the total calories burned ranges from 100 to 150 calories per session.
I’ll demonstrate the problem with a very simplistic example. Assume a sedentary overweight individual must consume 2,000 calories daily in order to maintain current weight yet still eats at a small caloric surplus of 10% (2,200 calories a day). If this person burns 2,000 calories a day normally and then adds another 100 to 150 on top of that (2,100 to 2,150 per day), that still leaves a caloric surplus, albeit a small one. My point here is that if we are going to discuss helping bring people into an energy balance, it is important to be reasonable about the expectations of physical activity in terms of how often such activity will take place and how many calories such activity will burn. When we do that, the numbers clearly show that physical activity can only make a small dent in addressing energy balance and weight-related issues.
To strengthen my point, take the same person above (2,200 calorie a day consumption vs. a 2,000 calorie a day requirement) and assume that the person exercises every day (a big if) and has gotten in good enough shape to burn 300 calories during exercise. This person consumes 2,200 calories and burns 2,300 and is now in a caloric deficit of 100 calories. Using the simple formula of 3,500 calories burned = 1 lb of fat, how many days does it take to lose one pound? Answer: 35 days, also known as way too many.
What annoys me the most about the GEBN page is the complete lack of attention paid to diet in the energy balance equation despite an abundance of evidence showing that physical activity, while good for a number of reasons, is not as effective for weight loss as proper nutrition. Setting side the obvious role of diet in weight loss, is the GEBN implying that so long as someone with a diet loaded with processed carbohydrates, added sugars through soda, high fat red meat/processed meat products, trans fats, etc. is in “energy balance” that this is an acceptable outcome? Just because someone isn’t necessarily gaining weight, or even losing it, doesn’t mean the diet is a healthy one. Weight gain may not be an issue but the other health risks don’t go away.
The last quote I’ll comment on is this:
But it’s the balance of intake and expenditure that prevents obesity, helps control obesity. We need to learn more about it, but with the Network we’re going to get the information out.
I’ll get the information out for them. Yes, balance helps prevent obesity. However, for the millions of people either obese or struggling with weight-related issues, the only energy balance that will help them is one where calories burned are substantially greater than calories consumed. Since exercise’s contribution to a caloric deficit is minimal, the deficit has to be created through cutting calories, the appropriate macro nutritional balance and whole and healthy foods. Speaking from experience, one of the easiest ways to cut calories is to eliminate calories from sugary beverages like Coca Cola. Nothing else needs to be said, and we should reject any attempt by corporate shills to create a debate where none exists.