Why we can’t outrun a bad diet

There’s been a recent twitter debate about diet vs. exercise in weight loss. One side has the view “You can’t outrun a bad diet.” The other side seems to think that you can. I’m with the former and I have been for some time. In Chapter Fourteen of my 2010 book “The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it?” I said: “There are many good reasons to exercise, but to try to create a calorie deficit, with the goal of trying to lose weight, is not one of them – not least because the body’s natural response to this will be ‘eat more/do less’.”

That sums up the position of ‘our side’. We all think that exercise is a wonderful thing to do. Most of us do it daily ourselves. Professor Tim Noakes was the tweeter who used the phrase “You can’t outrun a bad diet” in the recent twitter thread and he has over 70 marathons and ultra marathons under his belt. Tim was joined in a 2015 editorial, the title of which contained the words “You cannot outrun a bad diet”, by Dr Aseem Malhotra (Ref 1). Aseem is another fan of exercise, also running long distances, but he too doesn’t think that we can outrun a bad diet.

Big food

One of the fundamental issues that real foodies have with the idea that we can outrun a bad diet is that this is exactly what the junk food companies want the world to believe. Big food is so keen for us to buy in to this belief that their communications try to instil and reinforce this message constantly and consistently.

The 2013 Coca-cola chairs advert (Ref 2) had a clear message to the world’s population: get off your fat, lazy backsides and then Coca-cola can maintain profitability, while no longer being blamed for the obesity epidemic. In short, Coca-cola wants people “to achieve and sustain an active, healthy lifestyle.” (Ref 3)

This view is shared by other junk food companies. The words are shared too. The buzz words loved by big food are “active lifestyle” and “healthy lifestyle”. The word “balanced” also appears often, Balanced clearly means “including our products.”

Mars says “We continue to invest time and resource into making sure that we promote healthy, active lifestyles for our consumers and associates.” (Ref 4)

The KFC position is: “At KFC, we believe it's important to lead an active lifestyle and follow a balanced diet.” (Ref 5)

McDonalds use the words: “balanced active lifestyle.” (Ref 6)

Cadbury places the following words below products on their site: “To be enjoyed as part of a healthy, active lifestyle.” (Ref 7)

Pepsi want to “create products that fit into healthy, active lifestyles.” (Ref 8)

For this reason alone, we need to challenge the message that we can eat junk and avoid obesity, if only we would stop being lazy.

I’m going to offer three reasons as to why we can’t outrun a bad diet. I’m going to end with a realisation that I first made in 2009 and which I have not yet seen reflected in any discussion about calories burned...


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