The Flaky Fringe in a Jar

Marmite on Toast
Marmite on Toast

What causes obesity? This is a fertile area for both speculation and research, and certainly a place to find flaky fringe notions. Out of the hundred or so causes that have been suggested for obesity, at least a few are bound to be ridiculous.

But what if they are all true? Maybe one common factor causes 50 percent of all obesity, and another not-so-common factor causes 25 percent, and another causes 12.5 percent, and so on, in ever smaller increments. Eventually at the end of the spectrum, there could be an obscure factor that is only responsible for 0.0005 percent of obesity worldwide. But they all add up.

To complicate the picture further, out of the more than 100 causes for obesity that have been suggested, very few people belong on just one list. Most people will possess several of the more unlikely traits and characteristics that have been put forward as obesity villains. In the hard sciences, synergy is a known and accepted phenomenon. Small, seemingly unimportant factors, when combined, can result in something bigger than the sum of their parts.

History and Mystery

The most intriguing thing about the flaky fringe, of course, is that when we look back 25 or 100 years, it becomes clear that a lot of the most brilliant insights and significant discoveries began with what sounded like the ravings of cranks.

Unlocking the mystery of childhood obesity” is the very promising title of a piece by Amy Kennedy for the Hamilton Spectator. Scientists have known for a while that when pregnant women smoke cigarettes, their babies are more likely to develop obesity, but they didn’t know why. Dr. Alison Holloway of McMaster University and Dr. Daniel Hardy of Western University wondered about this, and did rat studies that showed a connection with folic acid deficiency in the mothers.

This leads the researchers to hope that folic acid supplementation, at the right time and the right dose, could reverse at least some of the damage done by mothers’ smoking. The bad news is, nicotine is nicotine, whether imbibed via the lungs or through a patch, or gum, or whatever. If a pregnant mom smokes cigarettes or sucks on nicotine lozenges, the effect on the developing fetus is the same — undesirable.

So, it would seem like a good idea to try and correct a certain amount of damage by administering folic acid, aka Vitamin B9. Repairing the harm caused by its deficiency might reduce childhood obesity. But this idea is complicated by the fact that apparently B9 can’t do its job unless the person is getting enough Vitamin B12. In this example of synergy in action, researchers have found that unless the necessary amount of B12 is also present, the B9 can instead cause the exact problem that needs solving:

An imbalance in nutrition seems to play an important role, and micronutrients seem particularly important. Normal to high maternal folate status coupled with low vitamin B(12) status predicted higher adiposity and insulin resistance in Indian babies.

To put it another way, the consequence of that imbalance can lead to metabolic syndromes, Type 2 diabetes, and — you guessed it — obesity.

The presence of folic acid in brewer’s yeast has been known for many decades, and people who focus on nutrition have used and recommended brewer’s yeast for at least a hundred years. Folk wisdom occasionally embraces a product, like the concoction known in Britain as Marmite and among the Australians as Vegemite. The favorite eating method it to spread it very thinly on toast, but there are other ways. More than ten years ago, Laura Barton wrote:

Pretty much the Holy Grail of foodstuffs, Marmite boasts a wide range of vitamins… Apparently, a mere four slices of toast and Marmite would provide a pregnant lady with all the folic acid she needs.

But because the lines between establishment medicine and the flaky fringe can be uncertain and shifting, brewer’s yeast proponents always have been and still are accused of quackery.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Unlocking the mystery of childhood obesity,”, 01/18/14
Source: “Maternal nutrition, intrauterine programming and consequential risks in the offspring,”, 09/09/08
Source: “’It must be spread thinly. T-h-i-n-l-y…’,”, 01/04/02
Image by Pleuntje


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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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