"You Can't Outrun A Bad Diet," Says Editorial, But Are We Misplacing The Blame For Our Unhealthy Habits?

If you were going to try to get yourself in shape, what would be the first thing you would do? Would you hit the gym? Probably — but if you read a recent editorial by three international experts, you might stop and think before you hit the treadmill. According to the paper, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, exercise “does not promote weight loss” — or, more generally, “you cannot outrun a bad diet.” But while the editorial makes some excellent points, I think — and maybe this is just me, but read it for yourself and see what you think — that where it lays the blame is ultimately misplaced.

The editorial comes as a response to a recent report from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which stated that getting 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week was “more powerful than many drugs administered for chronic disease prevention and management.” However, write the authors of the editorial while regular excise can do things like keep your heart in check, lower your risk for diabetes, protect against some cancers, “physical activity does not promote weight loss.”

They go on to describe the general state of obesity in the Western world (that is, not good and too high) — but their point isn't just that we're unhealthy. Their point is that we're being “drowned by an unhelpful message about maintaining a 'healthy weight' through calorie counting”; furthermore, they write, “many still wrongly believe that obesity is entirely due to lack of exercise.” Their explanation for why this is happening, though, is where the argument starts to lose me a little bit: “This false perception is rooted in the Food Industry's Public Relations machinery” — and even goes on to compare the tactics used by said machinery as “chillingly similar to those of big tobacco.”

To be fair, the editorial does bring up a number of good points grounded in science, like this critical review which concluded that limiting our carbohydrate intake is just about the single most useful thing we can do to manage diabetes. The overall message is that getting into shape is a result of multiple factors — which isn't exactly new, but it does bear repeating. It's true that exercise alone won't help you get fit; neither, though, will simply changing your diet. You have to do both those things, as well as make any other number of lifestyle changes: Stop smoking, cut back on drinking, start trying to get more sleep, and so on and so forth. The doctors behind the editorial are absolutely right when they say “you can't outrun a bad diet.”

I wonder, though, whether placing the blame solely on advertising and PR is really the most effective way to get this message across. Here's how the editorial concludes:

The public health messaging around diet and exercise, and their relationship to the epidemics of type 2 diabetes and obesity, has been corrupted by vested interests. 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. This manipulative marketing sabotages effective government interventions such as the introduction of sugary drink taxes or the banning of junk food advertising. Such marketing increases commercial profit at the cost of population health.

Yes, it's possible — likely, even — that the messages we're given in advertising and the “PR machinery” contribute to our poor dietary choices. That's undeniable (thanks, Wayne). But although I am not a doctor (repeat: Not a doctor! Cannot and does not dispense medical advice!), I also suspect that a lot of our unhealthy habits have to do with how busy our world has gotten. We work a lot these days. I know this editorial is coming from Britain, so the data is going to be slightly different; assume for a moment, though, that we apply the same logic to an American situation. The average full-time American employee works a 47 hour week — not a 40 hour week. That means we spend around nine and a half hours at work, five days a week. So: How does your day shake out?

Say you need to get to work by 8:30AM in order to be able to clock out by 6PM. If your commute is half an hour long (on the short end, I'd argue), then you'll need to be out the door by 8AM. You could probably get away with waking up at 7 or 7:30AM — unless you need to share a single shower with a few other people or you have kids to get out the door, too. So, let's say you wake up at 6:30AM. You're out the door by 8, at work between 8:30 and 6pm — did you have time to make lunch? No? Takeout it is — and then you're home by 6:30PM. If you stop at the gym before heading home, though, you probably won't walk in the door until 7 or 7:30PM. Then you have to make dinner — if you're speedy, it'll be done by 8 — and by the time you're fed and you've cleaned up, it's 9pm. That means you have maybe an hour or two to do whatever (more work?) before you head to bed. If you're asleep by 10:30pm, you'll get a solid eight hours of sleep; it's probably more likely that you'll be asleep around 11 or midnight, though. And then you have to repeat the whole process again, five days a week.

All of that, by the way, is based on relatively conservative time estimates. What if your commute is 45 minutes or an hour long? What if you can't cook a full meal in 30 minutes? What if hitting the gym takes longer than half an hour? No wonder we're eating so poorly. We have so little time that of course we'd choose fast over healthy and hope that if we work out for a few more minutes, it'll counteract whatever less-than-stellar thing we had for lunch or dinner. Hey, it's better than not eating at all, right?

I don't say this to excuse us from taking responsibility for our own health. But at the same time, advertising is clearly not the only thing at work here, so maybe we need to be looking at the bigger picture — and all of the things that play into it. You know how you need to make a whole bunch of lifestyle changes as an individual if you want to get into shape? The same is true for society as a whole. We have to stop living to work and instead remember what it's like to work to live. Our economy is one of the reasons we're all living to work, though, so that mode of thinking needs to run straight through everything — from those on the top all the way to those on the bottom. We need to stop thinking that the acquisition of wealth is the only thing that matters, but we also need to make sure everyone has enough to be able to live. We have to remember to enjoy life — not just slog through it.

I don't know how we'll make these changes, and if we hope to succeed in making them, we have a lot of work ahead of us. But let's keep in mind that, while one factor on its own might not effect the whole change, a number of them all taken together likely will.

Images: Giphy (3)