Professor James Hill of the University of Colorado, Denver has been working for 30 years in the field of obesity research, and is co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks more than 10,000 people who have lost an average of 70 pounds (about 32 kg) and have kept the weight off for an average of six years.
Hill says one strategy that nearly all of these people share (93%) is that they engage in a high level of physical activity – defined as at least an hour a day.
“Being physically active is critical to managing weight,” he said. “…You can lose weight really easily without exercise, but exercise is the number one predictor for keeping the weight off.”
The food industry gets a lot of heat for its recurring focus on physical activity, rather than on reducing intake of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food and drink. But Hill says he welcomes the industry’s encouragement of physical activity – as long as companies are also doing what they can to reformulate their products and provide single serve portions and lower calorie options.
“My sense is if you are marketing foods other than fruits and vegetables to a sedentary population, I think promoting physical activity has to be right in the centre of your business.”
‘Move more and eat smarter’
Hill advocates small changes for obesity prevention, including increasing activity and ‘eating smarter’, which refers to controlling portion size and energy density. And reformulation of high fat and high sugar products, promotion of single serve portion sizes, and increased activity together could have a major effect on obesity and overweight.
“We found that 100 calories a day could prevent weight gain in the entire population,” he said.
So how much responsibility should the food industry take for obesity, if the problem is not confined to food, but is also to do with sedentary lifestyles?
“I think food is only half of the problem, so at the most, industry only has half of the responsibility,” Hill said.
He suggests that other industries should take some responsibility too, including makers of flat screen TVs and other sedentary forms of entertainment.
“There are a whole bunch of industries that contribute to sedentary lifestyles. Computers have probably contributed as much to obesity as McDonald’s,” he said. “I think the food industry has responsibility but probably not as much as the public health people think they have.”
However, while Hill suggests academics and public health experts should be at the centre of any strategy to reduce obesity rates, he also says the food industry should be involved in the discussion.
“If we are going to get people to eat less, I don’t see how we can do that without working with the food industry,” he said. “They are not perfect at all, but we need to bring them into the dialogue.”