With two-thirds of U.S. adults considered overweight or obese, the stakes are high for a new scientific effort to answer a vexing question: Why are we so fat?

It may seem like the answer should be simple, but experts do not agree on why rates of obesity and related diseases like diabetes have soared over the past several decades, according to Wired magazine. The answer is critical. With millions of lives at stake and a vast proportion of health care spending consumed by the obesity epidemic, researchers hope to discover the reasons underlying the phenomenon.

New research initiative directly compares fats and carbs to identify obesity’s true cause.

A rigorous, exacting effort called the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI) seeks to solve the mystery with rigorously designed studies, one of which ranks among the largest ever performed. Other NuSI studies underway seek to gather information to reach a bold goal: halve obesity rates and cut those for diabetes by 75% over the next decade and a half.

For decades, researchers hypothesized that people in the U.S. ate too much fat. Many leading health organizations recommended reducing fat, but people have continued to gain weight. The fat hypothesis has come into question recently, with sugar and refined carbohydrates—those in white breads and pastas, for example— increasingly blamed for weight gain.

All while sugar and refined carbohydrates enter the spotlight, other research has found some fats—namely those in olive oils and nuts—healthy. An analysis of studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine uncovered no clear link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease.

Long-held dietary assumptions are now called into question. Researchers hope to find answers so people can live healthier lives.

NuSI partly blames the confusion on a proliferation of what it says are poorly designed studies and faulty conclusions. Some of the studies have been organized without strong enough control groups to form solid opinions. Other studies have focused on animals, and while those results provide helpful information, they cannot reveal precise data for humans.

Still other studies have been observational, which means they follow large groups of people over long periods of time, periodically surveying participants on eating habits.

Those studies are useful, but tend to uncover association or correlation instead of causation. For example, let’s say a group of people eat apples and fast food, and is found to have high blood pressure. According to those results, both apples and fast food could be correlated to fast food, but no causation can be proved because there are too many variables.

Nutrition science initiative seeks to clear up widespread confusion about diet and weight gain.

To design more rigorous studies and gain clarity on important nutrition issues, a science journalist and former physician and medical researcher teamed up to form NuSI. They want to answer the question of why people in the U.S. are gaining so much weight.

Consider the case of Peter Attia, an endurance swimmer who, at the age of 34, became the first person in the world to swim to Lanai and back from Maui. Despite a rigorous course of exercise, Attia found himself overweight and concerned about heart disease.

In search of weight loss, Attia gradually cut carbohydrates from his diet while eating more fat. Despite the added fat, Attia lost five inches in his waist over the course of two years.

In 2011, Attia reached out to journalist Gary Taubes to ask him questions about Taubes’ earlier research on diet. Taubes had a history of shaking things up in the world of nutrition research.

In 1998, he wrote an article titled “The (Political) Science of Salt,” that called into question decades of scientific insistence that the mineral leads to high blood pressure. The claim linking salt to hypertension was based on observational studies of populations with fewer cases of the disorder and not carefully controlled studies, Taubes wrote.

The observed populations’ tendencies to low blood pressure could have been linked to any other number of dietary characteristics, and not just the low levels of salt. The conclusions were a classic case of correlation not automatically leading to causation.

Taubes and Attia decided to join forces and raise money for careful, interdisciplinary research that would uncover the real reason behind the U.S.’ expanding waistlines. Soon after, a billionaire former natural gas trader named John Arnold contacted the duo and gave NuSi more than $40 million in grant money, significantly more money than the government is able to spend on such studies, according to Wired.

Well-funded research initiative could offer conclusive evidence to develop solid nutritional guidelines for maximum health.

NuSI is running some of the largest-yet studies directly comparing a low-fat diet to a low-carbohydrate diet, helped along by a special app that NuSI is designing for study participants. Other studies organized by the group are examining whether dietary proportions of carbs, fat, and protein affect the storage of fat, and how intakes of fat or carbs impact the number of calories burned.

Part of what makes NuSI different is how it runs its studies. Teams are built across disciplines and institutions. Traditional scientific research can be highly competitive with different disciplines and institutions working against each other instead of collaborating.

Through this privately funded, rigorous approach, NuSI hopes to finally determine why U.S. adults have been so unsuccessful in losing weight despite working incredibly hard to eat better and get healthy. The hope is that results from the studies will allow for the development of better-informed dietary guidelines, simplifying the goal of healthy eating for people.

NuSI says because it’s privately funded and not linked to bureaucracy of private interests, affiliated scientists have just one job: to find the truth. “The time is now,” its website reads.

NuSI leaders aren’t the only people working to reframe the obesity discussion. In the book The Hungry Gene, author Ellen Ruppel Shell argues that genetics has more impact on obesity than we think, with some people’s bodies more prone to storing fat than others. Modern U.S. society is also to blame, Shell says, noting that the fast food industry and shortage of physical education in schools is also to blame.

Do you think carbohydrates are worse than fat for overall health? Are you excited for this more thorough research? 

Image by Christian Cable via Flickr

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