Science journalist gives account of causes of obesity


Rising numbers of obesity in people is caused by less physical activity and eating more energy-dense foods, according to the World Health Organization’s website.

Science journalist Gary Taubes, author of “Why We Get Fat” and “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” discussed obesity and its potential causes at “Why We Get Fat: Adiposity 101 and the alternative hypothesis of obesity” with faculty and students last Thursday at the Food Sciences Building on Cook campus.

“We have to figure out what regulates fat accumulation,” he said. “And when we do that, we can figure out why some people get fat and others don’t.”

The number of obese people in America has gone up significantly in the last few years, he said. The number of diabetics is also increasing.

“The prevalence of obesity has skyrocketed. Some of that is surely a change in the diagnostic criteria of the disease,” he said. 

A person’s food environment, a group of factors that affect how and what a person eats, is responsible for whether they become obese, Taubes said. A toxic food environment is to blame for many instances of obesity.

Felicia Stoler, a part-time lecturer at the University and exercise physiologist, said a person’s relationship with food and physical activity impacts weight and health. 

“We are eating more calories in this century than in the past, and we are not moving as much as we had,” she said. “Our portions and plates have become larger. Food has become part of all of our socialization.”

Improving infrastructures have resulted in people using motorized transportation more often, while recreational activities require less movement than in the past, according to the WHO website.

Food processing has also led to increased consumption of foods that are high in calories, fats and sugars, but lack essential nutrients, according to the website.

Sugars are a form of carbohydrate, which drives insulin production, Taubes said. Insulin aids in fat accumulation.

The only form of carbohydrate that the human body can actually use is glucose, Stoler said. All other sugars must first be converted in the liver to glucose before they can be used. 

The isodynamic law of calories determines the way living creatures use the energy in glucose, Taubes said. Hormones from the brain are responsible for how the human body stores fat and how much fat it stores.

There are primarily two competing hypotheses about what causes obesity. The first states that a person retains any energy they do not use in the form of fat. The second says that a person’s body is designed to store a certain amount of energy as fat and expends the rest.

The chief difference between the two hypotheses is how humans store fat, Taubes said.

Taubes is currently conducting large human clinical trials to determine which hypothesis is more accurate, said Paul Breslin, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. 

Obesity is usually accompanied by a number of chronic ailments such as neurodegeneration, sleep apnea and liver disease, Taubes said. 

The risk for certain forms of cancer, musculoskeletal disorders, heart disease and diabetes also goes up within an obese person, according to the WHO website.

People can find alternatives to simply living with obesity, Stoler said. By adjusting their lifestyle appropriately, people can decrease their risks for obesity and other diseases.

“People must take personal responsibility for their choices and how it impacts their health and stop playing the blame game,” she said.


Nikhilesh De

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