Writing in the British Journal Of Sports Medicine, they said poor diet generates more disease than physical inactivity, alcohol, and smoking combined.
They point out that while obesity has rocketed in the past 30 years, there has been little change in physical activity levels.
“This places the blame for our expanding waistlines directly on the type and amount of calories consumed,” they write.
The “false perception” that exercise matters more than healthy eating is due to how the food industry is marketed, they argue, describing it as “chillingly similar” to the tobacco industry.
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They use the example of Coca-Cola associating its products with sport, “suggesting it is OK to consume their drinks as long as you exercise”.
They claim the public health messaging around diet and exercise, and their relationship to the epidemics of type 2 diabetes and obesity, has been corrupted by “vested interests”.
Celebrity endorsements of sugary drinks and the association of junk food and sport must end, the researchers write.
“Changing the food environment — so that individuals’ choices about what to eat default to healthy options — will have a far greater impact on population health than counselling or education,” they argue.
“Healthy choice must become the easy choice. Health clubs and gyms therefore also need to set an example by removing the sale of sugary drinks and junk food from their premises.”
Lead author Dr Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist, said that up to 40% of those with a normal body mass index will harbour metabolic abnormalities typically associated with obesity, which include hypertension, dyslipidaemia, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease.
“However, this is little appreciated by scientists, doctors, media writers, and policymakers, despite the extensive scientific literature on the vulnerability of all ages and all sizes to lifestyle-related diseases,” he said.
There are 200,000 people in Ireland with diabetes, with many of those unaware of their condition
For every excess 150 calories of sugar, there is an 11-fold increase in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes, in comparison to an identical 150 calories obtained from fat or protein, independent of the person’s weight and physical activity level, Dr Malhotra said.
Cutting down on carbs was also found to be the single most effective intervention for reducing all the features of the metabolic syndrome and should be the first approach in diabetes management, with benefits occurring even without weight loss, he said.
“It is time to wind back the harms caused by the junk food industry’s public relations machinery,” the researchers write.
“Let us bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity. You cannot outrun a bad diet.”
Meanwhile, new findings show 24,000 people in Ireland could have undiagnosed type 2 diabetes.
A study published in the PLOS ONE scientific journal, from research which was conducted by Vhi Healthcare, found that men were nearly three times more likely to have abnormal blood sugar levels and undiagnosed type 2 diabetes.
Nearly 30,000 people participated in the study into diabetes risk and cardiovascular risk in Ireland between 2009 and 2013.
However, the charity Diabetes Ireland believes that the number of cases of undiagnosed type 2 diabetes is as high as 40,000.