When Exercise Alone Isn't Enough

Obesity more likely tied to poor diets high in sugar than limited physical activity

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Think running an extra mile will balance out that extra serving of ice cream? Weight loss might not be as easy as the math of calorie counting.

In a new editorial, experts suggested that no matter how much patients exercise, diet is still crucial to health and poor diet may be the key factor in the obesity epidemic.

"In the past 30 years, as obesity has rocketed, there has been little change in physical activity levels in the Western population," wrote the authors of this editorial, led by Aseem Malhotra, MD, of Frimley Park Hospital in the United Kingdom. "This places the blame for our expanding waist lines directly on the type and amount of calories consumed."

In an interview with dailyRx News, Deborah Gordon, MD, a nutrition expert based in Ashland, OR, echoed the concerns put forth by Dr. Malhotra and team. She said the common "advice to count calories and take a walk" may not be enough. Patients may need to also change the types of food they eat.

Diets high in sugars and carbohydrates may be the main offenders when it comes to not only obesity, but other health issues as well, according to Dr. Malhotra and team.

The editorial authors said that not all calories are created equal, and that simple calorie-cutting may miss important aspects of weight loss. They cited a past study that found that every extra 150 calories from sugar per day on average was tied to an 11-fold increased risk of diabetes when compared to 150 fat or protein calories.

"According to the Lancet global burden of disease reports, poor diet now generates more disease than physical inactivity, alcohol and smoking combined," wrote Dr. Malhotra and team, who noted that even those within a healthy weight range may be at risk of health issues tied to a poor diet, such as high blood pressure.

One major part of the poor diet problem, Dr. Malhotra and team said, is the misleading advertising of unhealthy products.

"Celebrity endorsements of sugary drinks, and the association of junk food and sport, must end," Dr. Malhotra and team wrote.

Dr. Malhotra and team suggested that health clubs and gyms set an example by not selling these products.

Dr. Gordon gave some advice for navigating this complex issue.

"The secret to burning fat (the calories we want to lose) is to lower the level of the body's level of insulin, a hormone that promotes fat storage," Dr. Gordon said. "Reducing carbohydrates is the key, even for athletes."

Dr. Gordon added, "For weight loss, I recommend home-made meals bountiful in healthy meats, surrounded by heaps of leafy greens and non-starchy vegetables. Tasty fats such as avocado, coconut, and olive oil, as well as the fat in the meat itself, are healthful not hazardous."

Dr. Gordon also said patients should avoid sugars, sodas, and processed foods and limit dairy.

That doesn't mean exercise plays no part in weight loss and overall health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says adults should get two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking) a week.

Exercise can help reduce the risk of health problems like heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, while improving bone and muscle strength, mental well-being and longevity, according to the CDC. It can also help patients control their weight.

Still, Dr. Malhotra and team said the issue of obesity can't be solved without considering diet.

The bottom line?

"You cannot outrun a bad diet," Dr. Malhotra and team wrote.

Patients should discuss both exercise and diet with their doctors to develop the best health plan for them.

This editorial was published online April 22 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Dr. Malhotra and team disclosed no funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
April 20, 2015
Last Updated:
April 28, 2015