There’s an important point I didn’t get to make last post around, and it’s this: Yes, we are less physically active than ever before, and it is part of the reason we are getting unhealthier. Sedentary behavior, independent of weight, has been linked to all sorts of nasty consequences, including early death. The push to become more active is one that will save lives regardless of how many pounds it helps us shed, but it also shouldn’t stop us from criticizing the deliberate practices of many in the food industry to keep us addicted to their products.
While we’re on the subject…
Just yesterday, a study released on PloS-One, the open-access journal and frequent Heresy Club favorite, compared the household habits of women in 2010 and 1965 through the use of activity diaries.
Although others have looked (or not looked) at the paper and come away with the idea that its authors are advocating a return to domestic servitude as a solution to obesity, the actual conclusions of the study are entirely uncontroversial: Women, both employed and unemployed, are not only doing less housework, they’re replacing the lost time spent with less active pastimes such as TV or crafting together fan videos of those guys from Supernatural. (That’s what housewives do, right?) This led the researchers to conclude as such:
These results suggest that the decrement in HMEE may have contributed to the increasing prevalence of obesity in women during the last five decades.
Reading through the paper, you might notice that at no point does anyone suggest that these results warrant the ladyfolk breaking out their Swiffers in order to save themselves from gluttony. They do mention needing to up the physical activity recommendations released by organizations like the Institute of Medicine to compensate for the downtick, but all in all, their purpose was meant to show, not tell. So, no, there’s no sexist agenda to see here. The actual corrupt agenda here is a lot more insidious and hard to spot.*
For the background, this study is merely the continuation of an earlier one looking at the opposite side of the coin – the work habits of your average Joe. It too found that workers are exerting themselves less at the job compared to over forty years ago, as much as 100 calories per day less than their past counterparts. From the surface, the methodology’s sound and I haven’t heard any grousing over the numbers of either study. It all looks well and good until this passage located in the recent paper:
This growing body of research suggests that the rise in bodyweight and obesity may be due to decreases in PA [Physical Activity] alone.
From the outside in, there’s plenty of academic debate between the role of decreased physical activity and increased food intake in what’s occurring now. Some are even advocating things like viruses or lack of sleep as secondary factors. But it’s a debate of percentages, not entire causes. The whole of the obesity field would disagree with such a presumptuous implication as the one they make. Especially in light of studies showing that the amount of energy we burn through every day is roughly the same as it was thirty years ago, even while the obesity rate was climbing through the roof.
Just two days ago, I pointed out a study that showed how little difference in energy output there was in comparing the Hadza, a pre-agricultural society existing today in Northern Tanzania, to the average Westerner. These studies, unlike the housework study, measured output through doubly-labeled water, an isotope-laced liquid that allows us to measure the average metabolic rate of any one person.
It’s also worth noting that the previous study on occupational habits was a lot less bold about its conclusions, raising concerns that increased food intake wasn’t able to account for all the differences in weight seen today. Which is a legitimate argument to make. But the language of this present study feels more like a group of firefighters blaming the recent rise of arsons on how much more flammable city buildings have gotten, all while ignoring the man dousing kerosene in front of them.
I’m not calling out any of the study’s authors as evil scientists trying to trick us into eating as much as we want with no guilt; they all appear to be well-respected experts with legitimate positions in the fields of obesity research and exercise. I’m just left wondering why they’d ignore such a big elephant in the room.
Hmm. What do you know? This latest study was funded by the Coca Cola Company.
*I’m being a bit tongue in cheek here. I don’t actually think the authors are in the deep pocket of Big Coke, forever corrupt, only that their implications don’t match so well to the current state of obesity research. Their previous, less aggressive, study was not funded by Coca Cola for instance. And we absolutely do need to get people more active if we’re hoping to fight off the chronic diseases that hamper us as we grow older.
But what I also think is that companies like Coca Cola are eager to find and fund research like this in order to distract the public from questioning its agenda. Very similar to how tobacco companies used funded research to call into question the role of cigarette smoking in causing bad health for decades. A little too similar in my opinion.
**Update: Recently had the chance to speak with Travis Saunders, currently a PhD student in Exercise Physiology and one of the writers of the great blog Obesity Panacea, a treasure trove of the latest in obesity research news. He directed me to one of his own reviews conducted in 2011 on obesity in Canadian children. I’ll sum up part of the abstract here:
A review of the evidence suggests that there is robust evidence supporting the role of reduced sleep, increased sedentary time, increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, and secular increases in adult obesity as contributing factors to the current epidemic of childhood obesity. There is moderate evidence that these trends are related to changes in either total energy intake or physical activity, while there is very little evidence supporting the role of maternal age, breastfeeding, exposure to endocrine disrupters, or inadequate calcium intake.