What four new studies hint about fixing obesity

Four recent obesity-related studies have come out in the past few days that are worth taking a slightly closer look at. One reported that overweight people who have successfully taken and kept off weight tend to stick to structured exercise programs. Another found that male rats made obese and diabetic via high-fat diets tended to have diabetic female offspring, while male rats given normal diets did not–and since there was no general difference between the genes in the two groups, and because the mother rats in both groups were non-obese and non-diabetic and so couldn’t have passed along anything different in utero, the explanation lies somewhere in environmental differences relating to the dad rats’ different diets. (Yes, rodent studies usually don’t translate well to humans, and this might well fail to translate, too, but for what it’s worth it was an unusually simple and clean study, no genetic engineering or exotic behavioral manipulation or psychological interpretation involved.)

A third study found that people who live in areas where the Mediterranean diet (lots of “good” fat, lean protein, grains, vegetables and fruit, little saturated fat) is prevalent tend to keep weight off as they get older better than people in other areas–but (hallelujah!) the researchers and even (at least in this particular Reuters article) the reporter prominently note that it may well be behavioral and other environmental issues common to people who live on this diet that does the trick rather than the diet itself. The last study predicts US obesity rates have not peaked at about a third as other experts have claimed, and will continue to rise to hit 42 percent–and add that part of the problem is that hanging around with obese people tends to make it more likely that a person will herself become obese, so that the higher the obesity rate goes the more it increases the chance that it will rise further (up to a certain point).

I find all of these studies interesting in their own right, but the main reason I mention them is that all four highlight behavioral and environmental issues as being key to obesity rather than–or at least in addition to–the choice-of-food-types and the genetic issues that are often emphasized in studies. I hope I’m seeing a trend here. We can’t get rolling on solving the obesity problem until we stop fixating on poorly understood physiological processes and on molecular biological factors that we can’t do anything about, and start focusing on behavioral and environmental changes that we can start working on today. That’s what got us into this fix, and that’s what will get us out.

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