In a Q&A interview withFortune, PepsiCo’s (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi has taken the food industry’s love affair with exercise to a new level. Asked about Pepsi’s role in the obesity problem, Nooyi declared: “If all consumers exercised, did what they had to do, the problem of obesity wouldn’t exist.”
The problem with Nooyi’s statement — besides its absurdity, that is — is that science doesn’t back up the idea that obesity is caused exclusively by a refusal to get off the couch. In fact, recent studies have shown that food is a much more important component of weight gain than exercise. For instance, despite the proliferation of health clubs across the land and the nearly universal understanding that working out is good for you, exercise levels have remained remarkably flat over the past 20 years.
What’s changed is food. There’s way more of it available everywhere and we eat a lot more than we used to, 23% more calories a day in 2008 than in 1970.
And while exercise can certainly help with weight loss, to really lose significant weight without changing your diet might just require you to register for the Ironman Triathalon. Down one Starbucks(SBUX) venti caramel frappucino after a five mile run and the calorie-burning benefits are gone.
Even if you just want to counter the effects of the 50 gallons of sweetened beverage the average American consumers in a year — many of them sold by Pepsi — you’d have to run 800 miles a year, or approximately 2 miles every day. How many people are going to do that?
To be fair, the vegetarian Nooyi went on to talk about what Pepsi, which critics consider to be perhaps the most proactive and progressive of the food companies, is doing to make its food products healthier, especially in the “fun for you” category. (In the food industry, there are no bad foods or junk food.)
But it may not be a good idea for food company executives to talk about exercise at all, since it just lends weight to the criticism that they’re trying to divert attention away from the problem of too much bad food. As Kelly Brownell, an obesity researcher at Yale, puts it, “These companies don’t sell exercise, so why are they paying so much attention to it?”
While Ronald McDonald sure looks cute in sweat pants, it’s probably best to leave the fitness evangelism to Radu and Richard Simmons.