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June 8, 2004


Fake Fat

An obesity researcher at Rockefeller University has been horrifying medical alarmists by claiming that Americans are not actually becoming hugely fat. According to Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, statistics show that the average weight of the population has only increased around 7 pounds since 1991.

"Obesity, Dr. Friedman says, is a problem....But it does no one any good to exaggerate the extent of obesity or to blame the obese for being fat."

Lest you think that he is simply an apologist for fat, lazy slobs, this article also takes pains to point out that "Dr. Friedman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator....is not fat. He is tall and gangly, with the rumpled look of an academic scientist." -Emily

It's good to see that the widely reported obesity "epidemic" is mostly the result of casual observation and changing definitions of obesity. I've heard about the work of Dr. Friedman from some of my scientist friends, who we might hear more from later. His basic arguments make sense, and he has research to back up his ideas, but I think he carries the theory a little too far. It is worth noting that Dr. Friedman has based his career on his discovery of "leptin", or the fat gene, which he says is wholely responsible for determining our weight. "Body weight," he says, "is genetically determined, as tightly regulated as height. Genes control not only how much you eat but also the metabolic rate at which you burn food. When it comes to eating, free will is an illusion."

He also says that on average obese people have gained a significant amount of weight over the last 10 years or so, 25 to 30 pounds. Non-obese people have gained an average of about 7 pounds. So where is this weight coming from? If leptin is responsible for setting our weight, and not the food we eat or the amount of exercise we do, why do people ever gain weight at all? Or lose weight? He compares leptin levels to other genetic traits, like height, but the analogy isn't clear: our height does not change in response to our behavior, like weight does. Leptin levels are genetically determined, and there are more obese people now than there were in earlier generations, so are obese people of earlier decades suddenly having more children than thin people? It all doesn't quite make sense.

Dr. Friedman himself says "People can exert a level of control over their weight within a 10-, perhaps a 15-pound range." Presumably, people can gain as well as lose 10-15 pounds by changing their behavior. For most people who want to lose weight, isn't 10 or 15 pounds generally what they're interested in losing? If you want to lose 10 pounds and are willing to change your eating and exercise habits to do so, you most likely are in control of your weight. Saying "free will is an illusion" is an overstatement, otherwise no matter what we eat or what exercise we do, our weight would never change. Unless, of course, we take leptin while dieting to chemically alter our physiological response to food. And what do you know, Dr. Friedman himself is developing drugs that do exactly that. Ka-ching! -Amy

categories: Health
posted by Emily at 9:50 AM | #