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New Obesity Research: Are “Unknown Factors” Responsible?

FOX News Alabama has just reported on a study conducted by obesity researchers at the University of Alabama concluding, in the words of researcher David B. Allison, Ph.D., that “the usual answer of too much eating and too little exercise may be a drastic oversimplification of the true causes of obesity” and that “increasing body weight may involve some unidentified or poorly understood factors.”  The study subjects were a group of primates called marmosets that lived with or around humans.  The researchers could find no explanation for why the marmosets gained weight over time.  A follow-up study with other mammals yielded similar findings, provoking speculations that “light changes, viruses and epigenetics” could be possible contributing factors to weight gain.

The story generated the following web comment from a reader called “CrazyFatChick”:

“Praise for Dr. Allison and his team for this important work. Far too often people assume that overweight people choose to be overweight and that obesity is solely the result of overeating and lack of exercise and nothing that a little ‘self discipline’ can’t cure.”

Without question, not every person who is overweight or obese has “chosen” to be that way.  Genetics and medical disorders are factors over which control is limited or nonexistent.  There may also be as-yet-unknown factors which play a role as well.  Nothing is as simple as it seems.  But our present understanding of weight gain and obesity is that poor diet, excessive calories and insufficient exercise are heavily implicated as culprits.  It would be a shame if the Alabama animal research is interpreted by some to imply that diet and exercise are not significant factors or that our choices and actions are irrelevant or hopeless in making a difference in how we look and feel.  It would be especially troubling if some folks in Alabama – our nation’s second fattest state – were to lose hope on diet and exercise after seeing this report and use the “unidentified or poorly understood factors” idea as an excuse not to bother. 

What do you think?

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