Have the purveyors of fizzy drinks gone soft in the head?

It may perhaps come as no surprise that food companies that sell what I regard as utter crap to the masses spend a lot of time and money on giving their products a ‘healthy’ sheen and befuddling governments and journalists with inaccurate and misleading PR schmooze. This morning, for instance, Coca-Cola launched a PR offensive in Sydney, which seems to have been planned to coincide with an international conference on obesity which kicked off today in the same city. My sense is that Coca-Cola may be aware that sugary soft drinks are going to get some bad press at the conference, and rightly so bearing in mind the fact that a can of regular cola contains some 9 teaspoons of sugar and the evidence which suggests that such beverages play a big role in weight gain and obesity (see attached article). Perhaps in the face of this, the people at Coke seems to have weighed in with a spot of damage limitation.

One of the main tactics used by food companies to allay fears about the food they sell is that we need to be concentrating on the balance within the diet, not focusing on specific foods. I regularly get letters and PR releases from food company trade organisations that take this line. Of course, such an argument can be used to vindicate any substance, after all, strychnine and arsenic are nothing to worry about as long (as you don’t have too much of them).

So, I suppose it comes as no surprise that one of Coca-Cola’s strategies this morning was to take this line. One of scientists speaking up on behalf of Coca-Cola was Dr. John Foreyt, a ‘leading authority’ on obesity, dieting and behaviour, and a Professor in the Department of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, USA. The good Professor is quoted on ABC online as having said: “Well calories are calories are calories, so you want to look at balance and if people are getting their calories from one source, too many calories, people can get in trouble, but that caloric source can be anything, so you really have to look at your overall diet, and I think that’s still the bottom line”. I think the good Professor needs to go back and get himself a basic education in nutritional biochemistry. Different TYPES of calories have different effects in the body with regard to metabolism, biochemistry, physiology and health. For more details see the attached article: ‘Why a calorie isn’t a calorie’. The fact is, both the highly calorific nature of soft drinks and the form that these calories come in make for a pretty toxic mix, in my opinion.

Just for the record, readers of Dr John Foreyt’s comments should be aware that he consults for an organisation known as the Calorie Control Council, that describes itself as a non-profit trade association in the USA that is comprised of companies that make low-calorie, reduced-fat and lighter versions of your favourite foods and beverages. The council admits to being sponsored by food companies which include: The Coca-Cola Company, Ajinomoto U.S.A., Inc. (manufacturers of the artificial sweetener aspartame), The NutraSweet Company, PepsiCo, Splenda, Inc. On its website, the Calories Control Council (caloriescount.com) claims it has served as a ‘respected and credible information source about healthy lifestyles, weight management and obesity issues for many years’. Does this front for the food industry really believe that individuals in its pay can be regarded as ‘credible’? I wonder whether all the pop they drink must have made their brains go soft.

Observer Column – 20th June 2004

I have recently returned from a lecture stint in southern Ireland, where the recent ban on smoking in pubs, bars and restaurants was a hot topic of conversation. While I am generally resistant to the idea of Government’s interference in our personal habits, there is actually more than a whiff of evidence that forbidding smoking in public places may have benefits for smokers and non-smokers alike. For instance, a study published earlier this in the British Medical Journal found that just six months after the prohibition of smoking in public and work places in a town in the USA, heart attack hospital admissions dropped by 40 per cent. On health grounds at least, there’s an argument for sticking my liberal leanings in my pipe and smoking them.

Recent talk about the growing rates of childhood obesity in the UK got me wondering about the potential benefits of banning of specific foodstuffs in schools. Soft drinks have come up in this context, not least of all because their consumption appears to be a potentially potent risk factor for weight gain. One study, for instance, found that each additional daily serving (about 300 mls) of soft drink was associated with staggering 60 per cent increase in a child’s risk of obesity.

One reason why soft drinks may pile on the pounds concerns their sugar-charged nature, and their propensity to instigate outpourings of the hormone insulin form the pancreas. As I pointed out in my column last week, insulin has the capacity to predispose to the laying down of fat, and at the same time stalls the body’s fat-burning potential. Insulin can also drive blood sugar levels down to subnormal levels, which may stimulate the appetite and cause cravings for sweet treats such as chocolate, confectionery, and more soft drinks.

However, while several strands of evidence link soft drinks with obesity in children, what really counts is whether drinking less of these beverages does any good. To test this, British researchers subjected children aged 7 – 11 to a school-based educational programme designed to encourage them to consume less fizzy drinks. This programme led to an average reduction of soft drink consumption of 50 mls a day (compared to other children who went on to consume an average of 15 mls more of soft drink per day). Over the course of just one year, the incidence of obesity in children not subjected to the programme increased by 7.5 per cent. In comparison, the group who tempered their soft drink consumption saw a slight decrease in levels of obesity. It seems that even small reductions in soft drink consumption may reap big dividends in terms of weight loss in kids.

Of course a ban on the sale of soft drinks in schools does not necessarily assure that children will drink less of this stuff, but the likelihood is that this measure would be a big step in the right direction for a Government wanting to get tough on childhood obesity. Unfortunately, early responses from ministers on this matter have lacked bite. Rather than waiting for the politicians to act, some parents may feel compelled to take matters into their own hands through the appropriate lobbying of head teachers, school governors or PTAs. It may be that parent pressure will be the critical factor in getting soft drinks in schools canned.

Observer Column – 30th November 2003

Recent estimates that a whopping 40 per cent of us will be obese within the next generation have led to renewed calls from the dietetic establishment for us to cut back on calories. Standard slimming theory dictates that the only way to lose weight is simply to consume fewer calories than the body burns as fuel. However, a common consequence of the dietary restriction this usually involves is hunger – something that tends to gnaw away at the resolve and make the chances of long-term success quite slim. Also, the emphasis calorie-reduction puts on the quantity, rather than the quality, of the diet can lead some to eat a glut of heavily processed and chemically manipulated foods that, although light on calories, leave a lot to be desired from a nutritional perspective too.

Personally, I have never swallowed the calorie principle, and am inclined to encourage individuals wanting to lose weight to put their focus more on what they eat, rather than how much. Such an approach may not only reduce the risk of individuals falling foul of an overactive appetite, and may have other advantages too. In theory at least, it may pay to base the diet around the foods that have been in the human diet the longest, as these are foods the body is best adapted to burning as fuel. With this in mind, I usually advise would-be slimmers to have their fill of meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables and nuts, but to cut back on more contemporary carbohydrate-rich foods (such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta) that are traditionally touted for their weight-reducing potential.

While this approach goes against the grain of conventional thinking, it is supported by evidence in the scientific literature: research shows that eating carbs stimulates the body to metabolise carbohydrate, but at the same time may cause the body’s fat-burning potential to stall. In contrast, there is evidence that eating foods naturally high in fat, such as nuts, may actually help to boost the metabolism. In one study, feeding individuals with peanuts for 19 weeks led to an average 11 per cent increase in their base metabolic rate.

Further support for the metabolic advantage of more ancient foods comes from actual weight loss research. In one study published this month, the effects of two diets containing the same number of calories were tested over a 24-week period. In both diets, half of the calories came in the form of an identical meal replacement drink. In half of the test subjects, the remaining 50 per cent of the calories they consumed came in the form of carbs. In the other diet, the calorie count was made up with almonds. Despite consuming the same number of calories, the almond-eating group lost 50 per cent more weight (an additional 16 lbs) than their carb-consuming counterparts.

This study, although timely, is actually one of several pieces of research which show that lower carb diets are generally more effective for shedding pounds than restricting fat. And despite scare stories to the contrary, the science also shows that containing carbs is tends to work better than foregoing fat for quelling levels of unhealthy blood fats such as cholesterol and triglyceride in the bloodstream. A growing body of research shows that, where healthy weight loss is the goal, it’s not just calories that count.

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