Trimming the Fat


This week, we’re talking about obesity. Yes, I know you probably hear the word ‘obesity’ daily, if not multiple times a day. But in what context are you hearing this information? The likely suspects talk about the skyrocketing rates of obesity, how our childhood rates of obesity are climbing in conjunction with adults, or for weight-loss promotion programs and products, right? I want to make no mistake here, I am a huge advocate for active living and healthy eating, but there are a group of people that struggle with their weight for reasons that they themselves are unsure of. This is an area that is not getting attention in the media, likely because it doesn’t (yet) offer enough appeal for making profit. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have health implications for a proportion of the population, or that there is not much to be learned in understanding the problem, or ‘epidemic’ of obesity in our nation.

A story we’ve heard before. MedlinePlus is a national source for health information, and a reliable source at that (“Trusted Health Information for You”). But if you were to look at the health topic of obesity on the MedlinePlus website, you’ll see a lot of the same type of information mentioned above. The article I chose to cover here, is ‘Obesity Can Send Kids’ Blood Pressure Soaring’.

This article talks about how children and teens who become or stay obese are three times as likely to have high blood pressure compared to their slimmer counterparts. High blood pressure can detriment kidney function, increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and liver function. These health detriments can be mitigated by weight loss, but requires a shift towards healthy diet and exercise. A fairly familiar story regarding obesity, right? And while it is indeed accurate, it doesn’t raise awareness in regards to the full spectrum of factors contributing to obesity.

Let’s approach it from a new perspective. A professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Kristen Boyle is doing fascinating work looking at how obesity develops in the womb. She studies stem cells, which is enabling  research on child metabolism that has not been possible before because of the ethics of testing babies for research. Regardless of your own opinion on stem cell research, (which if it matters to you, all stem cells in this research comes from the donated umbilical cords of healthy, birthed babies) the ability to study stem cells in this context, is providing a fresh perspective on the topic of obesity.

What has been found, is that the fat content in both fat and muscle tissue of babies of obese mothers is 30% higher than that of normal weight mothers. They also have lower capacity to use these excess fats. “What makes this research exciting is that, by using this infant stem cell model we can begin to address the same questions in humans as have been done in the animals. Using these cells, we may soon be able to define why children born to obese mothers are at increased risk of developing obesity and metabolic disease. In the same vein, we may be able to identify specific characteristics from mom or the intrauterine environment that are contributing to these risk factors in the baby.” says Dr. Boyle, of her work. From these findings, the next steps are to test whether interventions during pregnancy that increase physical activity of the mothers could mitigate these effects; but that remains to be seen.

This is exciting research, as it will help us to understand how the in utero environment affects disease risk of a child later in life, particularly for diseases such as obesity, diabetes or cardiovascular disease. What this means is that we have the potential to enhance prenatal care and guidelines to approach the issue of obesity from a different, yet influential perspective.

Read about the research for yourself here:

You are what you eat.   If you’re never read any of the articles put out by IFL Science, you’re missing out. This website takes peer-reviewed articles (which I talked about in my last post), and makes the information easily accessible for the general public. And does a pretty good job of Obesity Evolutionmaintaining the objectivity of the journal article. In“What You Eat Could Be Affecting Your Health”, we learn of some emerging evidence that advances our understanding of factors contributing to obesity.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found some interesting correlations (note: correlations vs causation discussed in the previous post, “Tips and Tricks”) of the metabolism process and gene activity. Like mentioned in the previous post, it’s important to note that the subjects of this study were yeast molecules. Yeast is used a lot in formative studies as its genetic make-up is comparable to human genes, but is much more accessible and ethical to work with in initial exploratory research.

What was found in this study, was that when the yeast molecules were ‘fed’, their gene activity changed as a result of the metabolic process. Why am I talking about this in a post about obesity? Because it is plausible that these effects are comparable in human genetics, (although likely much less profound due to our complexity). What this means is that your weight is in part, a result of what you eat and how your DNA reacts to it.

That would make sense right? No?   Yes.  If you think about it, this would be an example of scientific evidence describing on a cellular level, what is commonly talked in normal conversation. Think about how often people eat the same food, but feel very differently after eating. Or why some people have such fast metabolisms while others don’t. Or why people say, “You are what you eat!” – your unique DNA is making changes based on the foods you put in your body! Kinda cool, right?

Who is still left out of the picture? Now this research, while awesome, still does not address the cause of obesity that is a systemic underlying problem in our society. Socio-economic status. This is considered a health inequity (not inequality), where American citizens are systematically unable to achieve a positive health status because of lack of access to health insurance, inability to purchase healthy foods to feed their families, and lack safe places to be active.

The article, ‘Why Poverty Leads to Obesity and Life-Long Problems’ discusses this a little further. This continues on with the consistent message we see in the media of the ‘obesity epidemic’, but discusses how despite obesity being a risk for all Americans, the most disadvantaged groups (low education, high poverty) are the most vulnerable. This ‘epidemic’, has been on the rise in conjunction with the economic insecurity of our nation. To address these systemic problems, we must think beyond individuals, and look to improve social and physical environments in these areas. It is suggested that investing in a diverse set of physical activities and nutritional programs in neighborhoods and schools may be the best way to reduce risk of obesity in young children.

The take home message here is that health issues are very complex. The mainstream message that we often receive is not the full story by any means. I may sound like a broken record with this, but you owe it to yourself, and your health to do some digging into topics that concern you, or that you feel passionate about.