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Overeating, Not Lack of Exercise, Faulted in US Obesity Epidemic

May 13, 2009 10:25 AM
by Liz Colville
If food intake is too high, exercise is not enough to control excess weight, suggests a new study by a World Health Organization obesity research center.

Overeating Is Riskier Than Sedentary Lifestyle

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In examining the eating and exercise patterns of Americans over the past 30 years, a team of researchers based in Australia has concluded that Americans’ weight gain “seems to be virtually all due to the consumption of more calories, with declines in physical activity playing only a minor role,” Reuters reported.

The study, led by a team at the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, suggests that “energy intake” is a more important factor in combating obesity than exercise.

“[W]hen it comes to placing priorities, I think it needs to be on reducing energy intake,” said Professor Boyd A. Swinburn, the director of the center.
The study was presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Amsterdam May 8. It is “the first to quantify the relative contributions of food and exercise habits to the growing number of Americans with bulging waistlines,” Reuters added.

It comes just a year after a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine strongly encouraged those who are overweight or obese to spend 60 minutes on most days of the week on aerobic exercise—twice what is typically recommended by organizations like the American Heart Association and American College of Sports Medicine.

But Professor Swinburn and his team argue that exercise time would actually have to be increased by 110 minutes a day in order to curb weight gain; however, “the focus would have to be on reducing calorie intake," he said.

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Background: Targeting exercise—and sugar, salt and fat

The World Health Organization launched the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health in 2004, zeroing in on fat, salt and sugar; emphasizing children’s diets; and encouraging people to get “at least 30 minutes of regular, moderate-intensity activity on most days,” adding that “More activity may be required for weight control.”

In 2007, the American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association revised 1995 exercise recommendations for healthy Americans, calling on us to do either 20 minutes of intense cardio three days a week or 30 minutes of moderate cardio five days a week, in addition to strength training twice a week.

The ACSM emphasized that “aerobic activity” should be thought of as in addition to the “routine activities of daily living,” such as housecleaning.

As WHO and other organizations highlight the world’s obesity rate, which is currently highest in industrialized nations, the food industry is responding positively, with influential companies such as Yum Brands and the Coca-Cola Company replacing high-fat or high-sugar products with healthier alternatives.

Several soft drinks are now made with all-natural ingredients, including the recently launched Pepsi Raw, the Daily Mail reports. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, KFC has begun promoting a grilled chicken meal in lieu of the deep-fried recipe it’s known for.

But some think more needs to be done. Kelly Brownell, professor and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and Thomas Frieden, the health commissioner of New York City, recently called for a “penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened soft drinks … saying it could cut their consumption by 10 percent,” writes U.S. News and World Report blogger Katherine Hobson.

According to Hobson, Brownell and Frieden wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that the tax dollars could then “be used to promote or even subsidize more healthful foods, like fruits and veggies, whose boosters lack the marketing resources of Coca-Cola and Pepsi.”

Related Topic: “The End of Overeating”

Dr. David Kessler, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, recently published “The End of Overeating," a book that looks at the science behind eating when we’re not hungry.

“We're all wired to focus on the most highly salient stimuli,” Kessler told The Huffington Post. “For a lot of people, that highly salient stimulus is food. … Even for people that are healthy weight, food activates the neural circuits of their brains, and they have this conditioned and driven behavior we call conditioned hypereating.”

Kessler recommends “full disclosure of what’s in food” and more scrutiny of advertising. “If advertising was meant to just convey information to consumers and it was neutral, that's one thing. But if advertising is a cue, then it gives you greater reason to regulate it, especially to kids.”

Reference: Nutrition, obesity Web guides

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