CrossFit’s approach to nutrition is simple and often life-changing: “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.” Our experience with this approach now extends over more than 10 years and to millions of individuals. During this time we have learned what many in the field of medicine are also discovering- that predicting and preventing chronic disease is not just a matter of balancing calories ingested with calories expended. Rather, chronic disease is often directly linked to toxic quantities of refined sugar in our diets. This means that what we have long seen as the cause of chronic disease–i.e., obesity–is better understood as a symptom of a more fundamental problem.
Why does this matter? Because it fundamentally changes the way we seek to prevent life-threatening illness. The mantra of “eat less and move more” is meaningless if your chronic disease is the result of a relatively small quantity of a sugar-sweetened beverage you continue to ingest daily.
The beverage industry, led by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, has fought this revelation for years. The suggestion that liquid fructose might be fundamentally toxic in certain quantities would put its products in the same category as cigarettes and could potentially destroy the industry. Soda companies have been proactive in making sure this does not happen, investing millions of dollars into the health sciences to ensure you, your doctor, your dietitian, your teachers, and your parents all understand nutrition and disease the way Big Soda wants you to.
This post is designed to highlight four hallmarks of Big Soda’s nutritional propaganda, and to expose those health organizations purporting to serve the public for being manipulated by industry funding.
1. Big Soda promotes “Energy Balance.”
You can tell an organization is promoting Big Soda’s view of nutrition when they claim that chronic disease results from an imbalance of calorie consumption and energy expenditure. The theory goes something like this: Sugar isn’t inherently bad for you. If you eat sugar, and then you burn those calories through exercise, you won’t get sick. This is a deceptive marketing myth, and the motive is obvious: Your chronic disease isn’t Big Soda’s fault, it’s yours.
As Ben Franklin said, “Half the truth is often a great lie.” Yes, eating too much can lead to obesity, and obesity increases your risk of chronic disease. But that’s only half the truth. It is possible to develop chronic disease without ever being obese, and ignoring that fact is lying by omission. For example, this study found that nearly one-fourth of normal-weight adults were “metabolically abnormal” and 51.3 percent of obese adults were “metabolically healthy.”
This means you can have “energy balance” while at a “healthy weight” and still develop chronic disease. This is why Big Soda wants to talk about obesity and not Type-2 diabetes or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, as we will see later in this article.
Teaching the concept of energy balance while ignoring the toxicity of junk food has set millions up for metabolic disorder, misery, and early death from chronic disease. This information is publicly available, and yet these organizations continue to teach a half-truth while taking funding from the beverage industry that half-truth protects.
Energy balance theory ignores the different hormonal and metabolic impacts different types of calories can have on the human body. As it turns out, it matters what types of foods our calories come from, and 100 calories of fructose added to a beverage has a dramatically different effect on the body than 100 calories of starch like that found in fresh vegetables. As the Institute for Responsible Nutrition notes, “Not all sources of energy are food (nourishment), and some, in excess quantities, are toxic – and can cause metabolic disease.”
Here are a number of organizations that propagate the energy balance myth. Note that every one of them is directly funded by the soda industry.
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) (funded by Coca-Cola until late 2015)
- AND founded a program known as “Energy Balance 4 Kids With Play” in partnership with the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF). HWCF is an industry organization representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, General Mills, and other distributers of sugar-sweetened products. The program promotes the concept of energy balance among children and parents through registered dietitians.
- An article titled “Back to Basics for Healthy Weight Loss” on the AND website states, “If you want to maintain a healthy weight for the rest of your life, it’s all about energy balance.”
- In another AND article, titled “Nutrition Info about Beverages,” we read, “Energy balance is the key to weight management for men and women, young or old. For a healthy weight, it’s important for adults to balance physical activity (calories out) with food and beverage intake (calories in).”
- Gatorade’s head of consumer engagement, Kenny Mitchell, explained to AdAge, “Our product is for athletes, the sugar is functional. It’s in there for a reason, to help fuel athletes … we just want to make sure folks are earning it.”
- An article defending energy balance on their website states, “By promoting physical activity, no one is arguing that calories from food are not important or trying to ‘shift’ focus away from food. The important thing to remember is that when it comes to weight management or weight loss, it’s the total calories that matters most.”
- The proceedings from the IFIC’s Expert Roundtable on Energy and Calorie Balance state the following: “The critical issue for nutrition and health communicators is the need for consumer-centered strategies that inspire action toward balancing calories in and calories out to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.” But remember, it is an established fact that one can develop chronic disease while maintaining a “healthy weight.”
- The “We Can!” campaign recommends drinking regular soda only “once in a while” to maintain energy balance.
- The “We Can!” campaign website gives an example of how parents should apply energy balance to their kids: “If they’ll be going to a birthday party and eating cake and ice cream—or other foods high in fat and added sugar—help them balance their calories the day before and/or after by providing ways for them to be more physically active.”
- The “We Can!” campaign website carefully recommends avoiding added sugar, not because overconsumption of sugar is toxic and leads to metabolic syndrome, but because it lacks other nutrients: “Added sugar provides calories but no additional nutrients. An eating plan that helps you and your family maintain a healthy weight is one that focuses on getting plenty of nutrients within your calorie needs.”
- For those who don’t want to stop drinking soda, the NIH website provides “some ways to burn 150 calories (ENERGY OUT), in just 30 minutes.” These methods include shooting hoops, doing yard work, and dancing with your family and friends.
- The “My Mixify” campaign website says, “balancing the calories that you eat and drink with the calories you burn is key.”
- In a 2008 ACSM newsletter bearing the phrase “Managing Chronic Disease,” we read, “for every couple of cans of soda taken per day, to keep the pounds off (not even lose weight), you may need to bike around 40 minutes extra per day. So unless you can fit an extra workout slot into your schedule (which is almost never a bad idea), limit the daily soda intake, especially for kids, or consider diet sodas in your effort to keep calories down and pounds off.“
- In a 2014 edition of the same ACSM newsletter, under the header “Healthy Habits to Prevent and Manage Chronic Disease,” we read, “the best thing to drink is water instead of sugar-sweetened or artificially-sweetened beverages. This helps you avoid unnecessary calories from sugar, which can lead to weight gain. And while artificial sweeteners are thought to be safe, there is no health benefit to consuming them. That said, there is no harm in drinking juice or even soda in moderation, but water should be your first choice.”
- Jim Skinner, chair of the EIM International Advisory Committee, suggests that there are three recommendations “we can all agree on.” These three recommendations are, “Do not smoke, eat less fat and fewer calories, and exercise.”
- During an EIM course, Skinner was asked if trainers should instruct Type 2 diabetics not to drink sugar-sweetened sports drinks. Skinner’s response was: “The body needs carbohydrate. If they are exercising, they are using it. So it’s not a problem.”
- The CDC’s website states, “When you do opt for a sugar-sweetened beverage, go for the small size. Some companies are now selling 8-oz. cans and bottles of soda, which contain about 100 calories.”
- Under the header “Healthy Weight,” the CDC’s websites states, “Healthy eating is all about balance. You can enjoy your favorite foods even if they are high in calories, fat or added sugars. The key is eating them only once in a while, and balancing them out with healthier foods and more physical activity.”
- A short video on the CDC website is captioned with the following: “Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight will help you prevent and control many diseases and conditions. The key is ‘Finding a Balance’ in your lifestyle that includes healthy eating and regular physical activity.”
2. Big Soda wants you to focus on “physical activity” instead of exercise, fitness, or even weight loss.
Perhaps the biggest trick of Big Soda nutrition science is to promote physical activity instead of fitness and weight loss. Weight loss and fitness require limiting the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages. Generic references to physical activity, however, may actually encourage the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, especially when the same organizations promote the idea of “earning” sugar by burning off additional calories through daily activity. The thought process that Big Sugar seeks to instill in the mind of consumers is something like this: “I did light housework for 30 minutes today, so I deserve a Coke.”
Here are a number of organizations that emphasize “physical activity,” but not fitness or weight loss. Note, once again, that each of these organizations is also directly funded by the soda industry.
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)
- In 2015, the AND published an article titled “Emphasizing Health vs. Weight for Body-Positive Thinking.” The article offers the following advice: “Obsessing about calories, carbs, fats or any nutrient is not healthy eating. It makes meals stressful and unpleasant, the opposite of what every kid and adult deserve.” The AND doesn’t emphasize physical activity in this article, but it downplays the need to work towards measurable improvements in body weight.
- An AND article titled “Combating Obesity with Fitness and Activities” does not discuss fitness and instead insists, “General physical activity is also a boon to maintaining a healthy body weight. It helps children burn calories and results in lower levels of body fat.”
- The 2018 National Physical Activity Guidelines will follow this very paradigm. Russell Pate, who was paid at least $225k by Coca-Cola and the International Life Sciences Institute, stated at the NPAG meeting, “we agreed that we won’t treat physical fitness as a primary outcome.”
- American College of Sports Medicine
- ACSM recommends that people who want to increase their physical activity “stand when talking on the phone” and try “getting a standing desk.”
- Exercise is Medicine
- EIM insists that because of genetics, a significant portion of trainees will not get fitter through exercise. And they tell EIM trainers not to promise weight loss. They said this is because they know they cannot consistently deliver fitness or weight loss (likely in part due to their failed nutritional paradigm). The only outcome EIM claims to offer is increased physical-activity levels.
- National Institutes of Health
- The NIH’s “We Can!” program website reads, “When we talk about moving more, we are not asking you and your kids to train like athletes. Some types of physical activity and exercise can burn a lot of energy. But everyday activities use energy, too. Simply parking farther away from the grocery store and walking the extra distance can use more energy.”
3. Big Soda wants to emphasize the problem of obesity over metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome describes a clustering of at least three out of five of the following conditions: abdominal obesity, elevated blood pressure, elevated fasting blood glucose, high triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol. Those with metabolic syndrome are at an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia.
While medical researchers continue to debate the cause of metabolic syndrome, most point to either obesity or insulin resistance. Those who point to insulin resistance blame the chronic consumption of simple sugars, particularly fructose.
Organizations and researchers funded by Big Soda unanimously blame obesity and argue that a lack of exercise and overconsumption of calories are ultimately to blame. Non-industry-funded researchers have identified insulin resistance (caused by the overconsumption of simple sugars, particularly fructose) as the primary culprit behind metabolic syndrome. Why the split? It seems that if metabolic syndrome is caused by obesity, the energy balance narrative behind Big Soda’s nutritional propaganda remains intact. If insulin resistance is identified as the cause of metabolic syndrome, it could mean that fructose, especially in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, is toxic in certain quantities. If this was widely believed, consumers might start viewing Coca-Cola the way they view cigarettes.
Here are some examples of soda-funded groups emphasizing the problem of obesity over that of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Note, again, that each of these organizations is also directly funded by the soda industry.
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)
- In an article titled “3 Steps to Help Combat Metabolic Syndrome,” the AND suggests readers can prevent or control metabolic syndrome by losing weight, increasing physical activity–which they suggest will aid weight loss–and eating a “heart-healthy diet”–which they again suggest will aid in weight loss. Their three suggestions are actually just one.
- The ILSI North America Committee on Balancing Food & Activity for Health focuses exclusively on obesity. Their website states, “Creating a unified, successful obesity reduction strategy relies on understanding the underlying causes of obesity.”
- In 2005, the ADA published a paper titled “The Metabolic Syndrome: Time for a Critical Appraisal.” The paper criticized the designation of metabolic syndrome as a “syndrome” and emphasized that controlling obesity through caloric restriction and exercise was the best approach to improving metabolic symptoms. The paper’s author, Richard Khan, was an executive with the ADA at the time and is currently defending the American Beverage Association in its legal battle with the city of San Francisco.
- On the AHA website, a page titled “About Metabolic Syndrome” reads, “The underlying causes of metabolic syndrome include overweight [sic] and obesity, physical inactivity, genetic factors and getting older.” The implication is obvious: Metabolic syndrome is caused by being fat or old. The words “sugar” and “insulin” do not appear anywhere on the page.
- On the NIH website, a page titled “What is Metabolic Syndrome” concludes, “Metabolic syndrome is becoming more common due to a rise in obesity rates among adults.“
- In a 2012 press release responding to an unfavorable study of sugar published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the ABA states, “Medical experts agree that a primary risk factor metabolic syndrome [sic] is obesity, something which can be mitigated by maintaining a healthy weight.” They go on to state, “Other risk factors are genetics (ethnicity and family history), aging (older age) and hormone changes.” The word “insulin” does not appear once in their press release.
4. Big Soda wants you to think chronic disease is “complicated.”
Those promoting Big Soda’s view of nutrition consistently claim that chronic disease is “complicated.” Is this true? While all human diseases are “complex” in the sense that they involve detailed and often poorly understood mechanisms in the human body, that isn’t what they mean. Big Soda speaks of the complexity of addressing and identifying the causes of chronic disease. The label of complexity rules out simple treatments like “stop drinking sugar” and makes models of chronic disease based on overconsumption of sugar seem oversimplified and rash. It is true that chronic disease is complex, but Big Soda is using the term to support their false nutrition narrative. See the following examples:
- “Metabolic syndrome is a complex metabolic disorder” –The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- “The causes of diabetes are complex and still not fully known. Sometimes diabetes is triggered by genetics, illness, being overweight or simply getting older. Although food doesn’t cause diabetes, it is part of the strategy for managing the disease.” –The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- “Childhood obesity is a complicated problem without a single cause.” –The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- “Targeting Sugar Is An Oversimplified Approach to Complex Problem of Obesity” –The U.S. Sugar Association
- “We know that obesity is a serious and complex problem that is best addressed by living a balanced lifestyle.” –The American Beverage Association
- “Obesity is a complex issue that requires comprehensive solutions.” –The American Beverage Association
- “Solutions to childhood obesity are as complex as the problem itself.” –The American College of Sports Medicine
- “Childhood obesity is a complex health issue.” –The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- “Obesity is a complex problem that requires a strong call for action, at many levels, for both adults as well as children.” –The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- “We believe our actions in communities and the marketplace are contributing to addressing the complex challenge of obesity.” –The American Beverage Association
- “Obesity is a global, complex challenge.” –Coca-Cola Europe
- “Obesity is a complex, systemic challenge.” –Coca-Cola Inc.
- “Obesity is a complex public health challenge.” –Coca-Cola U.K.
- “A complicated interplay of environmental, social, economic, and behavioral factors, acting on a back- ground of biologic mechanisms and genetic susceptibility, has fueled the increase in obesity prevalence.” –The National Institutes of Health
- “We all know that childhood obesity is a complex issue” –NZ Food and Grocery Council (An industry association that represents Coca-Cola)
- “Energy Balance – the Complexity of Obesity.” –N.Z. Food and Grocery Council
This isn’t an exhaustive treatment of Big Soda’s nutritional propaganda, but it’s a good introduction. Pay close attention, and you will find nutritionists, health organizations, and researchers emphasizing portion-control over macronutrient balance and treating the elimination of processed sugars from the diet as extreme and unrealistic. Look closer, and you will always find a financial connection between this advice and the companies who profit from the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages. Is this just a coincidence? I think not.