Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Taubes - His Golden Oldie, 2

Scientists are still arguing about fat, despite a century of research, because the regulation of appetite and weight in the human body happens to be almost inconceivably complex, and the experimental tools we have to study it are still remarkably inadequate. This combination leaves researchers in an awkward position. To study the entire physiological system involves feeding real food to real human subjects for months or years on end, which is prohibitively expensive, ethically questionable (if you're trying to measure the effects of foods that might cause heart disease) and virtually impossible to do in any kind of rigorously controlled scientific manner. But if researchers seek to study something less costly and more controllable, they end up studying experimental situations so oversimplified that their results may have nothing to do with reality. This then leads to a research literature so vast that it's possible to find at least some published research to support virtually any theory. The result is a balkanized community -- ''splintered, very opinionated and in many instances, intransigent,'' says Kurt Isselbacher, a former chairman of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Science -- in which researchers seem easily convinced that their preconceived notions are correct and thoroughly uninterested in testing any other hypotheses but their own.
What's more, the number of misconceptions propagated about the most basic research can be staggering. Researchers will be suitably scientific describing the limitations of their own experiments, and then will cite something as gospel truth because they read it in a magazine. The classic example is the statement heard repeatedly that 95 percent of all dieters never lose weight, and 95 percent of those who do will not keep it off. This will be correctly attributed to the University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Albert Stunkard, but it will go unmentioned that this statement is based on 100 patients who passed through Stunkard's obesity clinic during the Eisenhower administration.
With these caveats, one of the few reasonably reliable facts about the obesity epidemic is that it started around the early 1980's. According to Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of obese Americans stayed relatively constant through the 1960's and 1970's at 13 percent to 14 percent and then shot up by 8 percentage points in the 1980's. By the end of that decade, nearly one in four Americans was obese. That steep rise, which is consistent through all segments of American society and which continued unabated through the 1990's, is the singular feature of the epidemic. Any theory that tries to explain obesity in America has to account for that. Meanwhile, overweight children nearly tripled in number. And for the first time, physicians began diagnosing Type 2 diabetes in adolescents. Type 2 diabetes often accompanies obesity. It used to be called adult-onset diabetes and now, for the obvious reason, is not.

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