Saturday, September 19, 2009

Calories cause obesity!

Shocking discovery from the world of “duh”

Why is this even news?

Sugary soft drinks contribute to obesity. That's because they have lots of calories.

The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research surprised a lot of people when it issued a report on soft drink consumption. I'm not sure why.

I won't denigrate the report itself. UCLA is making a positive contribution when it documents the degree to which we are guzzling high-calorie low-nutrition beverages. I am bemused, however, by the general public reaction and the response in the news media.

It's not really news, folks. We've been lamenting the increase in the U.S. in both adult and childhood obesity. The increase unavoidably requires some combination of greater consumption and lesser combustion. Either we're burning fewer calories or stoking our bodies with more calories—or some “weighted” average of the two. We can't get around that (and, perhaps, it's increasingly difficult to get around ourselves).

The focus has been on soft-drink consumption among young people. The reported increase of soda-slurping among children and adolescents has led to much hand-wringing and an unfortunate level of satisfaction. Aha! Now we have found the culprit! Slay the sugary soda monster and all will be well!

Oh, good. “The” culprit.

It's never that simple, folks.

The UCLA researchers are correct, of course, to point out that a reduction in soda consumption will be a key element in fighting the national obesity problem (report coauthor Dr. Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy says it has to be “the top priority”). But UCLA's research brief also notes that “Additionally, childhood eating habits and weight status are important determinants of health as adults.” It's nice to see that the researchers mention eating habits in general instead of just citing soft-drink consumption.

A predictable result of the UCLA report (and the attendant media blitz) will be a stampede toward reduced-calorie diet sodas. We can confidently expect a future research brief that focuses on the negative or unknown effects of long-term consumption of aspartame (more attractively labeled as “NutraSweet” for marketing purposes) or saccharin.

No, thanks.

Here's your Diet Coke, sir

I have a bit of a sweet tooth and normally have a soft drink with lunch. (I refrain from alcohol because I have no taste for it.) I like the sugar and the gentle caffeine kick of a cola. The real thing, please.

For some reason, however, servers in restaurants really want me to drink diet cola. I hate the stuff, but I must belong to a key diet-soda drinking demographic. Do all middle-aged men order diet soft drinks when they choose to drink a soda? It sure seems like it.

Maybe I look fat to the impossibly young and slender wait staff. (They must not be drinking the stuff.) However, I'm over six feet tall and I'm under two hundred pounds, so I'm not exactly a pudge. I think it must be my demographic.

But give me the stuff with sugar in it, please. Since I would be perfectly happy to drop a few pounds, I can just drink less of it.

I'm sure that solution is too simple.


Karen said...

Other than my father-in-law, I can't think of a single man I know who drinks diet soda. My husband willingly bicycles to work even in bad weather to offset his three-can-a-day Classic Coke habit.

As to drinking the diet stuff, either you develop the taste for it or you don't. I have it, and I can't see how you people who drink the Real Stuff can possibly stand the aftertaste from the high-fructose corn syrup. Hey, barkeep, pour me another diet soda, wouldya?

Jonathan said...

There already was a study showing that people who drink diet sodas are on average heavier than people who don't. The researchers speculated that is was due to the fact that you feel better about making a smart choice, so you feel entitled to make a "bad" choice to balance it out. The bad choice is always more calorific than what they saved from the drink.

Another study showed that fast food resturants that offer healthy options like salads sell three times as many fries as those that don't.

Fraser said...

I know the world is not simple, but in any case: don't give carbonated soft drinks to your children, and they won't develop a taste for it.

familyfeedingdynamics said...

A few thoughts. I am a physician and now work as a childhood feeding specialist. First off, it's not just calories that cause obesity. This is a dangerous assumption. In fact, the USPSTF (US preventive services task force) did an exhaustive review and failed to come up with any dietary cause for obesity. Not calories, fat, HFCS. A 17 year study in Germany recently concluded the same thing. You cannot predict if someone will be fat or thin based on what they eat.(Except for the absolute extremes like the folks eating 4 dozen doughnuts and getting cut out of their houses on day-time TV, or those with severe calorie restriction due to eating disorder.) Kids ate a huge range in fiber, calories, HFCS etc but there was no correlation with size. Plenty of skinny kids ate horribly, and plenty of big kids ate well. In my work with families, the food intake analysis usually shows someone who is eating within or fewer than the recommended calories over a week, and still gaining weight. What I see is little structure, inadequate meals and snacks (dieting) leading to blow-out days with larger than average intake. What I was missing as a doctor, what the soda debate is missing is that it is much more than calories. It's about grazing all day, restricting kids (diet) which mostly means kids who are obsessed with food, hoard, sneak and get bigger (diet...) it's about poverty and food insecurity, it's stress, lack of sleep, lack of activity, eating meals alone in front of the TV... Most studies that I've seen that try to limit sodas, and increase exercise in schools fail to make any difference. Our obsessions with calories, fat, HFCS, and weight loss will only make us fatter as it has for the last 30 years. We need to return to feeding with structure, love, common sense, a little effort, family meals, limited screen time and loving the kid who might be a little pudgy but healthy. (Not all people will be skinny, but they can be healthy.) If you want to know more, read "Your child's weight, helping without harming" by ellyn satter. She's my mentor and why I got into trying to help kids ha and their bodies.

Anonymous said...

Not that I disagree with you on my own expertise, anonymous-representative-of-policy-advocacy-organization, but you state that "Not all people will be skinny, but they can be healthy."

If this is correct, how do you explain the massive mistakes the World Health Organization is obviously making when they state that Overweight (defined by a BMI in excess of 25) "is associated with an increased prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors such as hypertension, unfavorable blood lipid concentrations, and diabetes mellitus"; "is a major risk factor for the development of gallstones"; "is associated with osteoarthritis in several joints"; "increases in direct proportion to the risk of endometrial cancer"; "increases the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer"; "is positively associated with the presence of varicose veins"; "is associated with some endocrine disorders and infertility"; and "may lead to important social and economic disadvantages as well as psychosocial problems"?

It doesn't sound very healthy to me.

Interrobang said...

It's really quite simple: "increased risk of" doesn't mean that every overweight person will have any or all health complications from their weight. Personally, I'm not sure my BMI's ever been over 25, and I wound up with gallstones anyway. Didn't your mother ever teach you statistics?

One interesting thing I've noticed creeping into the literature is how well sleep deprivation is correlated with weight gain. Want to pack on some pounds quickly? Try sleeping much less than is required for your body for two or three weeks or so.

I personally don't know how you folks who live in the land of high-fructose corn syrup can stand to drink pop at all; that stuff tastes nasty. The Coke I drink is made with real sugar, and is kosher for Passover, too.

Laren said...

I am guilty of obesity as charged. I have been since a child. There's a reason why people develop a taste for diet sodas -- it doesn't come naturally -- and that reason is being overweight, and trying (or being forced to try) to do something about it.

I would argue that the study you mention exposes a case of correlation but not causation.
Drinking diet soda doesn't exempt me from any of the other guidelines of healthy eating, it just provides a nice fizzy, sweet cure for thirst.

Unapologetic, while most obese people are more at risk than the general population for certain diseases, the studies which support this conclusion don't take into account the fitness level of obese people. Unlike me, it is possible to be quite fat and still have a healthy cardiovascular system, healthy levels of cholesterol and insulin, and such. The key is exercise, and I'm working on it.

Anonymous said...

Interrobang, I do understand that statistics apply to the generalities, not the particulars, but the kindly policy representative was making statements in generalities when she asserted that overweight and health can go hand in hand.

Laren, please note that the quoted representative explicitly discounted exercise as doing any good. Her assertion seems to be that we can be healthy at any weight at all as long as we feel good about that weight.

Escuerd said...

Jonathan: "There already was a study showing that people who drink diet sodas are on average heavier than people who don't."

I wonder which way the causation runs there. I'd think that heavy people would be more likely to feel motivated to try diet sodas.

"You cannot predict if someone will be fat or thin based on what they eat."

Are you saying that variation in food intake doesn't account for 100% of the variation in body weight or that it doesn't account for any?

If you're saying the former, then that's bleeding obvious and beside the point.

If you're saying the latter, I'm going to call bullshit. If there were no correlation between calorie intake and body fat (or weight), it would be pretty big news, I'd think.