Battling Our Own Biology

by | Dec 20, 2022

In the last quarter of 2022 I was invited to Australia to advise the Queensland Government on a global health issue that is particularly problematic in their State – childhood obesity. The reason I was invited was because of an article my colleagues and I published in 2005 in the New England Journal of Medicine where we predicted that life expectancy in the U.S. would soon decline because of this health challenge. Unfortunately, we were right – the decline began in 2010 in many parts of the world.

During the meetings that took place in Brisbane in early November, a local scientist demonstrated that life expectancy at birth in Queensland is soon going to drop by 5 years due to the obesity epidemic. A drop in period life expectancy at birth of this magnitude is unheard of – indicating the severity of the health challenges they’re facing – so their concern is well placed and appropriate.

I’m going to show you a few of the slides I presented at their meeting to illustrate the difficulty faced by Queenslanders, but they’re not alone. The level of obesity present in this part of Australia is influenced in large measure by what’s happening to the indigenous population, but countries across the globe are also being challenged for many of the same reasons. In the final analysis, it’s our biology that gets in the way of a solution as much as the social and economic forces at work. Here’s the story in a nutshell.

• Fat is energy. It is nature’s way of making it possible for living things to survive under conditions of food scarcity.

• Life on Earth could not exist without highly efficient fat storage mechanisms, so humans and other animals evolved genetically conserved methods of converting food into stored energy.

• Once fat cells are constructed by our bodies, they don’t go away, even if we lose weight. Fat cells inflate and deflate throughout our lives; and reinflation is always easier the 2nd and 3rd time around, just like a balloon.

• Fat storage is so critical to life that humans evolved insidious methods of defending it. One method is that when enough fat accumulates, it becomes a secreting organ with hormone signals to tell the brain to seek out calories and protect fat storage. If you’ve tried to lose weight you’re familiar with one of these hormonal messages – a headache.

• Where the fat is stored on your body is influenced by genetics, as well as which part of the body draws down its fat stores when you’re trying to lose weight. This is why targeted exercises don’t work.

• The location of fat stores, also influenced by genetics, has a profound influence on health. When fat is stored above the waist, the risk of fatal diseases increases. When fat storage is below the waist, it leads to mechanical problems.

• A confluence of events that began in the 1970s made it much easier for people across the globe to acquire and store excess calories. Our bodies responded exactly the way they evolved to do so. The global obesity epidemic is an expected byproduct of ideal conditions for massive fat storage operating on genetically evolved programs designed specifically to conserve energy.
• Winning the battle against the global obesity epidemic is possible, but it will not be easy because we’ve engaged in battle with powerful genetic programs designed to conserve life.

• The first step required to address this health issue is to understand the enemy – only then will it become possible to formulate interventions that will work in the long-term.