It’s official. Obesity isn’t just about being fat and lazy, despite generations of conventional wisdom that taught us to think that we knew what it is that makes us fat. The truth appears to be that restricting calories and exercising more isn’t really all that effective in long term weight loss for the majority of those who are overweight.
In fact, research increasingly points to obesity as a disease, or rather a range of diseases with fat as a symptom of other factors, and not the root of the problem. Support for this radical new idea has grown to the point where the American Medical Association has officially acknowledged obesity as a disease.
Many researchers argue that it is actually a range of diseases, much like how cancer is an umbrella term for many types of cellular mutations that occur within the body. As many as 84 potential causes for obesity have been identified.
Nikhil Dhurandhar, vice president of The Obesity Society, conducted research that determined that a virus could be responsible for some instances of obesity. He was quick to point out that obesity isn’t contagious, per se, but is clearly more complicated than current treatment methods account for.
While he doesn’t discount the traditional approach entirely, he is calling for us to expand our understanding of the growing number of factors involved when we think about what obesity is. “We’ve focused almost all our resources on the so-called ‘Big Two’ of diet and exercise for more than 50 years and it hasn’t helped. We will have to move beyond ‘eat less and move more’ if we want to make progress.”
Another researcher, Peter Attia, posited in a recent TEDtalks the possibility that obesity is a symptom rather than the cause of diabetes. He discussed how the reality of the effects of diet and exercise on obesity rates runs counterintuitive to generations of assumption about the cure all power of calorie restriction and movement.
Attia used the current notion that obesity causes diabetes to demonstrate how obesity research could redefine how we treat those who are overweight.
Insulin resistance, commonly assumed to be the result of obesity, is when the cells in the body resist the effects of insulin, causing the pancreas to overproduce the hormone which eventually leads to diabetes. This same resistance could lead to the cells storing energy instead of burning it, as the insulin hormone would instruct it to do. Thus obesity would become a “coping mechanism for a far more sinister problem going on underneath the cell.” Or, a person gains weight as a result of cells storing energy due to insulin resistance.
Attia also posits that obesity could be a superior coping mechanism as those who are “lean” with insulin resistance appear to be at greater risk for resulting health complications. There are others studies that back up the idea that obesity can aid in survival of chronic illnesses as the excess fat is really stored energy.
Recent scrutiny from medical professionals surrounding the use of BMIs as diagnostic tools speak to the growing shift in how we think of obesity and how we define what it is. A person’s BMI is measured using only two factors, height and weight, and many researchers are arguing that this does not give anything close to an accurate picture regarding a person’s actual health. If fat is a symptom, as research suggests, then better tools will certainly be needed to determine and aid in the treatment of the underlying disease.
Written By: Vanessa Blanchard