Childhood Obesity and the Dark Matter Analogy

Dark and Ordinary Matter in the Universe
It has become obvious that diet and exercise are not the only factors contributing to obesity. There are some physiological states that can make a dangerous difference. Dr. Pretlow says,

Such conditions as Cushing’s syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, and hypothyroidism do exist. But pituitary, thyroid or adrenal gland metabolism disorders are significant in probably only a very small number of childhood obesity cases.

And, of course, Dr. Pretlow and many others attribute a large part of the problem to food addiction. And then there are researchers with theories that sound like science fiction nightmares, vast conspiracies of product and practice. With some of the stuff that’s going on, “Mistakes were made” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Todd Neale, staff writer for MedPage Today, summarized some of the facts reported in The Lancet as a result of a World Health Organization study to assess the “Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors.” The results were based on information obtained from and about more than nine million people in nearly 200 countries. The lead researcher was Majid Ezzati, Ph.D., of the Imperial College London School of Public Health. His team found,

From 1980 to 2008, the mean body mass index around the world increased by 0.4 kg/m2 per decade for men and by 0.5 kg/m2 per decade for women… In 2008, an estimated 1.46 billion adults worldwide had a BMI of 25 kg/m2 or higher, including 502 million who were obese… During the study period, the age-standardized prevalence of obesity increased dramatically in both men (from 4.8% to 9.8%) and women (from 7.9% to 13.8%).

Sadly, the people of the United States showed the fastest rate of growth during the study period. In The Lancet, Ezzati’s colleagues wrote of “a tsunami of obesity that will eventually affect all regions of the world.” They are Sonia Anand, M.D., Ph.D.; and Salim Yusuf, M.D., D.Phil., who wrote,

Developing solutions will require novel and as yet unavailable data to shed light on the complex interactions between agricultural and food policies (which affect the costs and promotion of different types of foods), industrialization (the nature of jobs), transportation, urban design, community architecture (which affects the expenditure of energy during utilitarian activity), economic changes, and social and cultural values, all of which influence health behaviors…

Something is going on all over the place and nobody has the slightest clue what it is. (That’s what the call for “novel and as yet unavailable data” translates to.) Now, an analogy. According to one astrophysical theory, 95% of the Universe is made of dark matter. In other words, whatever is out there, the very large majority of it was not even suspected by humans until a few years ago. What if there is something comparable in the obesity field? A ubiquitous, pervasive factor whose existence we are only beginning to catch sight of? Some scientists believe this is possible, and have their reasons for thinking they are on its trail.

What if, even worse, there are several as-yet-undiscovered mysterious processes involved? Perish the thought. Meanwhile, without going too far into speculation, it is beginning to look as if the energy imbalance between fuel that goes in and energy that is burned is not the sole factor. Some chemicals, like sugar, are obviously identifiable as addictive substances. Yet not everyone becomes addicted to sugar. Do other chemicals alter us by making us more addiction-prone?

In “Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation: White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President” (available online as a PDF file), the section called Chemical Exposures starts on page 17. One of the consequent recommendations is,

Federal and State agencies conducting health research should prioritize research into the effects of possibly obesogenic chemicals.

For a popular account of this area of inquiry, not necessarily endorsed by Dr. Pretlow, but as a example of what people are thinking and saying, please see “Obesogens Hidden In Your Food Making You Fat.” This article says,

It may sound like science fiction, but the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, and White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity have all declared obesogens, also known as ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals,’ to be a potential danger to America’s waistlines…. Called obesogens, or endocrine disruptors, these natural and man-made chemicals work by altering the regulatory system that controls your weight — increasing the fat cells you have, decreasing the calories you burn, and even altering the way your body manages hunger.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Waistlines Expand Worldwide,” MedPage Today, 02/03/11
Source: “Obesogens Hidden In Your Food Making You Fat,” HealthyBodyDaily.com, 09/21/10
Image by Argonne National Laboratory, used under its Creative Commons license.

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