Poor diets are to blame for the obesity crisis, rather than a lack of exercise, health experts claim.
According to the research, unhealthy diets – particularly diets containing a lot of sugar – are responsible for more disease than alcohol, smoking, and physical inactivity combined.
The authors suggest that the common perception of exercise as being more important than diet is incorrect, stemming from aggressive marketing by the food industry. The study pointed out the example of Coca-Cola associating the sugary drink with sport and exercise. The idea being, according to the researchers, that consumers will feel that it is okay to buy more of the product as long as they exercise afterwards.
This kind of marketing, the study suggests, echoes the efforts of the tobacco industry to downplay the health risks associated with its product.
According to the study, unhealthy diets increase the risk of several diseases, and are largely responsible for the increase in obesity levels in recent years. Obesity is a key risk factor in the development of several related health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.
The research also found that an excessively sugary diet directly increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. For every excess 150 calories of sugar in an individual’s diet, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes increased 11-fold compared to 150 calories from fat or protein.
The study also identified carbohydrate reduction as being key to type 2 diabetes prevention and treatment. Even without weight loss, the authors suggest, a low-carb diet reduces all the characteristics of metabolic syndromen, and should be the first step in managing diabetes.
The researchers emphasised that exercise was not enough to offset the effects of a bad diet; one has to eat well, regardless of physical activity. In fact, their research suggests that exercise levels have not significantly changed over the past 30 years. They may even be on the rise. They expressed concerns that athletes who eat high-carb diets may still develop insulin resistance despite their exercise, and increase their risk of type 2 diabetes as a result.
“This places the blame for our expanding waistlines directly on the type and amount of calories consumed,” the authors wrote.
“Celebrity endorsements of sugary drinks and the association of junk food and sport must end. The ‘health halo’ legitimisation of nutritionally deficient products is misleading and unscientific.
“It is time to wind back the harms caused by the junk food industry’s public relations machinery.
“Let us bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity. You cannot outrun a bad diet.”
The research was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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