Who’s really to blame for the obesity epidemic?


Growing up Republican, I have long believed in personal responsibility. In junior high school, when I observed close relatives who struggled with obesity, I vowed to never let myself get out of shape. (“Junior high” is what we called middle school back in the day.) When hip surgery gone wrong dramatically reduced my level of physical activity two and a half years ago, I cut back on what I ate to keep from gaining weight. In fact, I believe that much of our nation’s obesity epidemic comes down to personal responsibility: If people ate less and exercised more, we’d be a healthier nation.

But there is another culprit who deserves blame for American obesity: the sugar industry, which, for decades, bamboozled the American public about the dangers of its product.

My ire at big sugar was stoked by a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine analyzing correspondence from the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) in the 1960s and 70s. In the late 50s, the sugar industry recognized that people’s concerns about the connections between cholesterol and heart disease provided them with an opportunity to tout the “no fat” benefits of sugar. By 1962, however, the industry recognized that high sugar intake could increase cholesterol levels, too.

In response to the JAMA article, the Sugar Association pointed out that it is a “disservice that industry-funded research is branded as tainted.” They also stressed that “sugar does not have a unique role in heart disease.” But the point of the JAMA article, and of my post, is not to taint all industry-funded research, nor to claim that sugar is the main cause of cardiovascular disease. Industry-funded research can greatly advance human health, if the industry funding the research is honest about communicating results to the public, regardless of whether their products come out looking good or bad. And while sugar is far from alone in threatening health, few credible scientists believe that the American obesity epidemic has nothing to do with the enormous increase of processed sugar in the American diet.

What is an industry to do, when science threatens its business? Honest industries would either change their products, warn consumers about the harms of their product, or find a way to overcome these harms. The sugar industry, instead, obfuscated. The SRF funded academic researchers who were pro-sugar, to raise doubts about the sugar/cholesterol connection. Around that time, they paid one researcher $6500 ($50,000 in today’s money) to write a review article that downplayed the connection between sugar and heart disease. They even let the researcher know which findings to emphasize and which to downplay, to which the scientist replied that he and his colleagues would “cover this as well as we can.”

Time for me to return to personal responsibility.

We owe the obesity epidemic to a lack of personal responsibility. However, I’m no longer referring only to the general public, failing to curb their appetite for sugar. I’m also talking about industry leaders who promote “alternative facts” to boost their profits. They need to take responsibility for their actions. It is one thing to promote your products and let the American people decide whether to consume them. I wrote this post while consuming a delicious cup of hot chocolate; sugar tastes great, I know that. But it is immoral to sell your products by lying to people.

If you can’t make a living selling your products honestly, you need to find another job.

Peter Ubel is a physician and behavioral scientist who blogs at his self-titled site, Peter Ubel and can be reached on Twitter @PeterUbel. He is the author of Critical Decisions: How You and Your Doctor Can Make the Right Medical Choices Together. This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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