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.

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21 thoughts on “Broscience – The Energy Balance Edition

  1. People need to eat less. The issue is that eating is one of the great pleasures in life for most people especially when we lead busy lives. Taking an hour lunch break to do exercise is virtuous but not as fun as going to a nice meal. It also means leaving later.

    The thing that probably gets in the way of exercise the most is the business of life. The best time for most people might be at the end of a very long work day or very early in the morning before work.


  2. I don’t’ want to sound intemperate but the GEBN people need to be hit with a shovel upside the head. Hard. What pathetic shills. The fact, which you accurately note, that diet is far more important than exercise isn’t even news anymore. It’s a standard knowledge. Although there are so many charlatans out there peddling crap i know people think they can exercise away their flab. What they seem to be pushing, and many people don’t get, is how hard to you have to work out to burn significant calories and even then diet is still more important.


        • I don’t drink a lot of soda, but when I do it’s generally diet. My tastes have changed to where the “real” stuff just feels to heavy afterward.

          When Alton Brown lost a bunch of weight, he noted that one thing he had to do was cut out his beloved Diet Coke. It wasn’t because of fear about some voodoo third order effect on metabolism or anything like that. He said it was just recentering his tastebuds’ assumptions about how sweet food should be. He found that once he cut that out, a lot of healthier foods that seemed too bland before were just fine, and sugary foods that tasted good before started to taste too sweet.


          • Yeah… I find sugared soda overly sweet. It’s to heavy for me. I used to eat PBJ for lunch but in the last few years i find all jelly is just way to sweet for me. I ended up trying to spread the jelly so thin you needed an electron microscope to see it and that didn’t work well either.


    • I almost didn’t write this post because the rebuttal is so obvious, but the fact that corporate shills are trying to pull this kind of crap really got under my skin.


      • What i think is most frustrating about this is how it will only exacerbate the fears and cynicism of many people against other none related things. Here we have some apparently decent scientists with good credentials that are hitting Hyper-Shill levels of bs. Sure they are being called out, i’ve seen other doctors reaming them out. But for anti-gmo or anti-vac or even the Mercola acolytes this just feeds into a disbelief in fancy scientist guy saying things they don’t agree with. Why not just always blame so and so being in the pocket of Big Whatever when it is so easy to find an example like this.

        And while i’m pretty sympathetic to liberal complaints about big business, this kind of thing really really plays into liberal mistrust of big corporations. I love me some diet coke or coke zero. Coke makes plenty off of me. But i also don’t like being bullshat. They could try the ” lets build trust in our consumers and not seem evil” idea. But no, they go straight for “lets try to con them.” It should be easy to see why many liberals are suspicious of big business and stuff that comes out of their lie holes.


        • FWIW, as a GMO skeptic, I think pro-GMO scientists and the pro-Coke scientists are in a totally different league. The former mean very well, but many of them have a tendency to downplay the harms of their own micro-fields, and discount the relevant big question marks in the literature (you’re much more likely to see support for GMO crops from a Ph.D. in plant genetics than from a Ph.D. in plant ecology, for instance). The pro-Cokers, on the other hand, have to intentionally ignore a lot of VERY well-designed research that seems to answer the relevant questions pretty conclusively. Pro-GMOers are typically just imprudent (in my eyes), while pro-Cokers are much closer to deliberately spreading misinformation.


  3. I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight since June. I’ve done it principally by eating less. Moderate exercise helps, but until I restricted my diet, exercise only helped me sort of hover at my too-far-overweight level rather than continue to gain. Indeed, I was probably exactly at the low calorie surplus obscured by moderate exercise level that the OP describes, resulting in a slow creep up the scale until other ill effects of obesity began to rear their heads and I did something to correct my course.

    There is nothing special about me; I’m a pretty typical American male. I’ve got no significant physiology abnormalities. I like burgers and pizza and beer. And I’ve had to teach myself that these things are special treats, not everyday consumables. Your body won’t behave exactly like mine will — but in all likelihood, it’ll be similar enough that the broad generalizations above will be true for you, too.

    Want to lose weight? Eat less. Do you drink sugared sodas? You still can — you just have to see it as an occasional treat, and not something to wash your daily Big Mac down, if you want to lose rather than gain.

    It isn’t magic, and you didn’t need scientists to tell you that.


    • Yup. Exercise will help anybody be healthier in many ways. There is a avalanche of good studies showing that. But the exercise doesn’t do much for weight loss on its own.

      If you are into some types of athletics there is strong positive feedback loop to having fun when skiing or running or etc and controlling diet. This leads to having more athletic fun and focusing more on diet and then having more fun. Most people aren’t lucky enough to get that benefit though. Gosh knows that positive feedback loop is the most important thing to my health and keeping a good weight.


  4. So, their argument seems to be that A = B – C and that there’s no evidence whatsoever that increasing B should be at all correlated with increasing A. I hate reading this stuff because I feel shame on behalf of those who can’t feel it for themselves. I’m cringing right now. This is also why I can’t watch Presidential debates.

    The response may be obvious, but I think it’s good for you to post it anyway. People who want to lose weight really need to remember that it’s a *ton* easier to add 100 calories to your diet than to burn off the additional 100 calories with 100 calories in extra exercise. I could walk downstairs right now and consume 900 calories in a few minutes with hardly any effort at all. If I wanted to burn it off running, I’d probably have to go about 8 miles. There’s a huge asymmetry here.


  5. And, Dave, I’d go further and argue that even YOUR examples are overly simplistic (though I realize that was probably intentional).

    As you note, 3500 calories approximately equals a pound. Which means the person overconsuming by 10% (200 calories) is going to gain almost 2 pounds a month and about 20 a year. This isn’t the case for most people. Odds are people are overconsuming, on average, less than this. They’re actually probably at or around a balance, maybe gaining a few pounds a year but certainly not 20 (this would lead most people to double their weight in a decade).

    Then they start doing moderate exercise. They hop on the treadmill for 20 minutes, get a decent sweat, and think, “Wow… I really burned some calories today. Let me grab one of them shakes from the Fit Bar.” Those shakes easily have over 400 calories in them. So now they are far more out of balance. They do this for two weeks, say, ‘Hey, I ain’t losing any weight,’ and quit.

    These changes should always be done gradually. Even if I’m getting back into it after a brief layoff, I need to remember to work on one thing at a time. Get eating back under control OR exercise… but not both. If I go from a couple of weeks of 2500+/2000- and immediately try to flip that to 1800+/2400-, it is too big a shock for the system.

    These things are simultaneously simple and complex and this group is trying to sell the simple while leaning on the complex to act as if they have some authority.


    • Yes, it was a very simplistic example, but if I went the other way, the point of the post could have gotten lost in the details with the point being that exercise does very little to bring people into balance.

      That said, the real problem with energy balance is the two-headed monster you mention: one head being the fact that people are woefully bad are estimating how many calories they consume and the other being the propensity to overconsume after a workout under the belief that the food was “earned”. People burn 100 calories, consume 400, wonder why there’s no change in weight or body comp and quit.

      Then there are those that try to go on diets, create unrealistically high deficits, screw around with the macros too much (i.e. cutting out too many carbs), throw training on top of it to further boost the deficit and end up all out of whack when they binge eat.

      Are those numbers your intakes for training vs. non training days?


      • Oh, yea, I wasn’t meaning to criticize. My comment was more, “You shot their argument to shit and you didn’t even use your best guns.”

        Those are not my actual numbers. They were just hypotheticals. To be honest, I don’t keep track. I have a tendency towards being compulsive (not in a clinical sense… at least I don’t think) and tracking everything I eat would probably put me in an unhealthy place. I don’t even weight myself anymore. Generally speaking, I try to eat as many vegetables as possible, lotsa fruit, lotsa lean proteins, and whole grains for carbs. I avoid processed stuff as much as possible. And I drink a lot of water and that is really the only beverage I intake (unless you count the fruit-and-veggie smoothies).

        I’m pretty in tune with my body. If I tracked things I’d end up chasing numbers and that isn’t good for me. If I feel out of whack, I usually know why. I let how I feel during/after a run or a workout or meal guide me rather than strict adherence to a numbers game. Which isn’t to criticize that approach, but simply acknowledge what works for me.

        Also, at the risk of sounding arrogant (WHEN DOES KAZZY NOT RISK SOUNDING ARROGANT?), I consider myself fairly blessed in the ‘genes’ department. If I want to lose weight or build muscle or shave down my run times, I can usually do it pretty easily. I can get away with not being super precise in a way that most people can’t which allows me to be a little sloppy.


  6. 1) Coke is unhealthy (almost certainly diet coke, too, sorry). People using the uncertainty about dietary science to push soda are shills. But, frankly, it’s not terribly helpful to push back against that by pushing simplistic models. The energy balance things, while trivially true, unhelpfully conceals the important bits about energy and appetite and metabolism. If anything, the simplistic perspective lets coke off the hook. If energy balance were all there was too it, then calories from coke would simply be calories. Though we don’t know the whole story of why people get fat, plenty of hypotheses would make calorically dense, liquid, highly flavored, nutritionally empty things like coke significantly worse than the equivalent number of calories from other foods.

    2) Exercise is still super important., even though it doesn’t much help you lose weight. It’s ironic (and kinda depressing) that everyone is focusing on the weight aspect. Because Coke would be on much firmer ground comparing the health benefits of daily exercise to the health benefits of quitting soda (though obviously doing both would be even better, and I guess admitting that might be a problem for Coke).


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