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Is obesity a disease? June 22, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. The American Medical Association recently joined a number of other major organizations in officially declaring obesity a disease. This has caused considerable debate in the medical community, with some arguing that obesity is caused by poor food choices, eating too much, and lack of exercise, while others insist that it is in fact a disease, a potentially lethal disease (since it ups the chances for a range of diseases, such as diabetes and cardiac arrest).

Whatever it is, a third of American adults are now classified as overweight, and another third as clinically obese. That would be two-thirds of the American adult population, and the number of overweight and obese children is also shooting up.

But, as I just discovered, there is hope for those of us battling belly fat or the extra ten or 20 pounds. Our friend Ben had brought me the July/August issue of Mother Jones because its lead story was “Gagged by Big Ag,” and he knows how much I hate Monsanto and all it and companies like it stand for. But frankly, I didn’t really need to see any more photos of murdered pigs and the like; I know more than enough about the horrors of factory farming, GMOs, etc., and have been a vegetarian and ardent organic gardener my whole adult life as a result. (You can access the article, if you have the stomach for it, at http://www.motherjones.com/.)

What caught my eye was another in-depth article, “Did the War on Microbes Make Us Fat?” (Sadly, I couldn’t find this one on their site, so if you want to read it, you’ll have to buy the mag or download it on Kindle.) It was a fascinating article with no horrible torture photos. And it presented a third view of what obesity is.

The research that it documented suggests that disrupting our intestinal flora, through eating high-fat, low-fiber, sugar-laden foods, is the cause of obesity and the host of ills it contributes to. These foods favor certain damaging gut bacteria and wipe out others, and the damaging bacteria cause inflammation, which at this point is thought to cause metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer, as well as disruption of hormonal functioning, which can lead to everything from sexual dysfunction to depression. Yowie kazowie!

It’s apparently not how much we eat, but what we eat (or don’t eat), that’s causing the damage, coupled with our obsession with anti-bacterials, from mouthwash to hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps and cleaners of all types, which wipe out the protective bacteria along with the “bad” bacteria. Cultures the world over that are exposed to a wide range of bacteria don’t suffer from obesity and related diseases, even if they indulge in rich, fatty foods. Being exposed to pets and farm animals and soil and other “dirty” (but natural) sources of bacteria is healthful, not harmful.

Short of eating soil, how can we take advantage of these research findings? First, we can eat fermented foods, such as yogurt, miso and shoyu, kimchi, and sauerkraut, all packed with “good” bacteria. (Hey, isn’t wine a fermented food? Just sayin’.) Next, we can eat plenty of whole grains, beans, greens, and fruits—all those veggies your mom always said were good for you—and avoid fatty processed and fast foods. (Sadly, this includes white rice, white pasta, white-flour breads, bagels, grits, popcorn, and anything else that requires plenty of butter, cheese, cream and the like to taste good, not to mention those McMonster burgers, fries, fried chicken, and the like, and of course non-fruit desserts.) Good news: potatoes and sweet potatoes both made the “good guy” list.

Finally, you can try taking probiotics, prebiotics, or a combination (synbiotics) to repopulate your intestines with healthy colonies of good bacteria. The research still is out about the effectiveness of getting your bacteria from capsules rather than nature, but my view is can’t hurt, might help.

As Columbo would say, however, there’s “just one more thing.” And it was a huge shocker. As a vegetarian, I’ve never been on one of those high-protein, low- to no-carb diets. But they sure are popular. The article noted that diets of this kind—mentioning Atkins as an example—created a bacterial profile in the gut that had been linked to colon cancer. Let me just say, it’s not worth dying to be thin.

‘Til next time,




1. William Scudder - June 22, 2013

There’s a lot to chew on there. Well done.
I have to ask, “Yowie kazowie!” I heard someone from Lancaster County use that term years ago, do you know its origin?

Ouch! Ouch! Bad pun!!! And no, I don’t know the origin of “yowie kazowie,” but I probably also read or heard it up here and thought it was funny, so it’s stuck in my mind.

2. Michael Eriksson - June 22, 2013

Cynical as I am: If obesity is a disease then hospitals can treat for it (whether successfully is another matter…) leading to a greater inflow of money.

However, since I do not know the exact reasoning around the classification, I cannot rule out that there is a legitiimate reason involved, say that they merely consider the state of being obese as a state of being unhealthy.

For my part, I can merely observe that when I exercise too little and eat too much, I gain weight; when I exercise more and eat less, I lose weight.

Hi Michael! Thanks for, er, weighing in. I too thought after reading a debate between doctors in my local paper that the reason the medical groups had gotten behind the idea of obesity as a disease was that it would mean that health insurance would pay for weight-reduction procedures. But whatever the case for that might be, I found the research in Mother Jones fascinating. (In my own case, more for the anti-inflammation angle than the weight loss.) I too have lost weight by excersizing and eating less (and certainly eating less fat and more whole foods), so I know it works, but it requires (in my case, at least) an enormous commitment of time, both for exercise and cooking. Wouldn’t it be cool if simply altering your gut bacteria worked as well? (Mind you, you’d still have to exercise to stay toned.)

brendanjmiller - June 22, 2013

This is pretty controversial, isn’t it? We have to ask ourselves the question if obesity is the causative factor for many diseases. I know this may be coming off as spam, but rather than me just re-writing everything in this reply, I should really just link you to research I’ve come across.


Hi Brendan! Yes, this is still controversial (that’s one thing that makes it so interesting), and no, of course you’re not coming across as a spammer. Thanks so much for the link, I look forward to reading what you’ve found! I don’t think obesity per se causes disease, but chronic inflammation certainly does, because it’s so damaging to the body. I know it sounds like another quick fix, but if managing gut microbes could really end chronic inflammation, I’d be the first in line. If I read it right, the article suggests that inflammation is ultimately an immune malfunction (like adrenaline poisoning, insulin resistance, and so many other bad things), and it appears that immune function is controlled by the microbial environment in the gut. Whatever the case, it’s certainly a fascinating and promising theory. I’m so sorry the article wasn’t on the magazine’s website, as it goes into many things I couldn’t cram in here, such as the great advantage this would provide doctors (and patients) over current treatments and attempting to work through comparatively cumbersome DNA analysis and the human genome.

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