In the U.S., 68% of adults are either obese or overweight. This health crisis costs the U.S. $147 billion annually in direct medical costs and indirect costs such as lost wages. Researchers have been studying obesity and obesity prevention for decades now; here are five of their recent findings in obesity research.
1. The brain-belly connection
Scientists at the University of Michigan Medical School have discovered a strong and lasting connection between the brain and the belly. A team of researchers led by Malcolm Low, M.D., Ph.D. of the University of Michigan Medical School and Marcelo Rubinstein, Ph.D., of the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina have found a cluster of 10,000 brain cells located deep in the hypothalamus. This cluster sends signals to the stomach to indicate fullness.
These specialized neurons are referred to as POMC cells. For some people, the signals from these cells can get cut off or distorted, resulting in inaccurate communication between the brain and the belly. Researchers have found that POMC cells’ function is largely genetic. This is the first stage of research that could lead to better treatment plans for obesity.
2. Fat color matters
Among the general public it is not widely known that fat comes in different colors, but researchers at Washington State University have shown that eating certain kinds of food can transform unhealthy white fat into weight-busting “beige fat.” Beige fat produces heat and boosts metabolism, and it might just be the key into obesity research, prevention, and treatment.
In the study, mice were fed a high fat diet and then divided into two groups. The control group ate as normal, and the study group was fed resveratrol equivalent to two or three servings of fruit for humans. Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in many fruits but in large amounts in berries. The resveratrol group gained 40% less weight than the control group.
Prior to this study, researchers were only aware of two types of fat: white fat that stores energy and brown fat that converts energy. This beige fat may hold the key for obesity prevention as it speeds up the process of energy combustion.
3. The media’s role in the perception of obesity
Chapman University, the University of California Los Angeles, and Stanford have just published the results of their analysis of the media and its portrayal of obesity. Researchers found that the manner in which the media portrays obesity can affect everything from employment to education for overweight or obese individuals.
David Frederick, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University and lead author on the study, noted this considerable influence:
“Our finding that news reporting on obesity as a public health crisis brought on by bad personal choices can worsen anti-fat prejudice and increase people’s willingness to charge obese men and women more for insurance. This is worrisome because there is extensive evidence that weight-based stigma negatively affects health, equal access to employment, earnings, education, and medical care.”
In the study, researchers presented the same news article with four different perspectives, including obesity as a public health crisis, obesity as a result of poor choices, and a “fat rights” perspective that emphasized equal rights at any size. Only the “fat rights” perspective garnered positive support from study participants. The influence of the media on public perception was clear and potentially harmful.
4. Metabolically healthy obesity exists
There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not obese people can ever be considered healthy, but a study from Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia has found that there is such a thing as metabolically healthy obesity. This is defined as people who are technically obese but remain free from type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and an abnormal blood lipid profile.
Associate Professor Jerry Greenfield, head of the department of endocrinology at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney and of a clinical research lab at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, led the study that sought to define what it meant to be healthy and obese. Nearly 66% of Australians are overweight or obese, with some remaining free of complications that traditionally accompany extra weight.
From the study results:
“What we found is that obese individuals who are sensitive to insulin in muscle only or liver only are metabolically healthier in many respects than the group that is insulin-resistant at both sites. Not only do they have lower blood pressure, but they also have less deep abdominal fat and less fat within the liver. In fact, judging by these criteria, the metabolic health of these people is similar to that of individuals who are insulin sensitive at both muscle and liver.”
These findings could lead to more individualized treatment for obesity based on this obesity research.
5. Potential obesity gene discovered
Scientists at the University of British Columbia have found a gene that, when disabled in mice, resulted in a 50% reduction in white fat in the body. This gene carries a protein called 14-3-3zeta and is located in every cell in the body. Higher levels of this gene in mice resulted in mice who ate more and had a rounder body shape, mimicking the “apple shape” in humans that is typically associated with an increased chance of obesity-related disease.
Identifying this gene and its function is the first step to developing more targeted approaches for prevention and treatment of obesity. Specific gene therapy aimed at blocking the production of 14-3-3zeta could help people who have struggled with obesity that has a genetic cause.
James Johnson, a professor of cellular and physiological sciences who has been studying this genetic link for years, pointed out that this discovery could lead to new, more successful drug protocols through simple obesity research:
“Until now, we didn’t know how this gene affected obesity. This study shows how fundamental research can address major health problems and open up new avenues for drug discovery.”
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