Move more…but please don’t eat less: Why industry should stress ‘calories in’ to fight obesity

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Move more but please don’t eat less: Stress calories in fight obesity

Related tags Food industry Obesity Nutrition

The more we move, the slimmer we will become, right? However, with ballooning obesity rates over the past 30 years, research suggests that this is not the case. US adults are moving more than ever – but eating more than ever too.

Exercise alone would only blunt our rate of weight gain, so what if most of us simply should consume fewer calories?

There is a growing body of research suggesting that physical activity levels have very little to do with overweight and obesity. Exercise has many health benefits, but a new study published this month​ again has questioned how plausible it is to cut the number on the scales without cutting the number of calories we consume.

That’s a hard message for the food industry, which for a long time has urged us to move more – and has emphasized its range of food and beverage choices – but hasn’t really urged us to eat less. The industry is in the business of making money, after all, so stressing ‘active balanced lifestyles’, and ‘calories in, calories out’ has seemed like a safe message, emphasizing the individual’s surfeit of inactivity rather than caloric excess.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The food industry has made strides in offering healthier options, but these are often seen – and marketed – as supplementary to core products.

Back in the 70s…

In the United States, most people exercise just as much as in the 1970s​ – and exercise levels among adults have actually increased – but it is still generally assumed that moving less has been a major factor in the tripling of obesity rates in the past three decades.

Of course, there is plenty of research suggesting that exercise may be very helpful indeed for weight loss in conjunction with a low-calorie diet, but sensible food choices must be part of the equation.

In short, it is far easier to reduce calories consumed by 500 a day than it is to ‘burn’ 500 calories a day through exercise. A 150-pound individual would need to cycle at a moderate pace for nearly an hour, or walk for nearly two hours, in order to work off that amount.* For most people, it turns out, exercise is not about ‘balancing’ calories in with calories out at all.

Cashing in on health

With this in mind, many food industry campaigns claiming to tackle obesity look strangely skewed toward moving more, rather than eating less.

However, with a shift in strategy, most marketing executives need not feel uneasy. There is money to be made in the promotion of healthier foods, particularly those made from wholesome ingredients, which are high in fiber, low-calorie, low-sugar, low in unhealthy fats, and portion controlled.

A recent report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch​ suggests that companies offering the healthiest choices – those that could genuinely help people manage their weight – are ripe for investment. It describes efforts to tackle obesity as an ‘investment megatrend’, which could last for the next half century. This should give pause to those in the food industry looking at where to bank their marketing dollars.

For the healthiest return, the focus must be on food, not fitness.


*According to an estimate derived from Ainsworth, B.E., et al. "Compendium of Physical Activities: Classification of Energy Costs of Human Physical Activities." ​, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise​. 1993.

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