Obesity is arguably the most pressing health issue of our time. Obesity-related illness is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. As such, research on why we are obese and ways to combat this epidemic has grown considerably in the past decade. Here are a few recent developments.

Obesity prevention should start young

Nearly one-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, which puts them at early risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. An important finding in obesity research is that programs designed to halt or reverse obesity in kids is key to breaking a family cycle of obesity.

Kerri Boutelle, PhD, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, and her colleagues found that using attention modification programs with kids to help them re-train their brain regarding hunger signals was remarkably effective in decreasing overeating in obese children. In a pilot study of 24 eight- to twelve-year-olds, the researchers split the children into two groups, one of which underwent an attention modification program (AMP). Previously used to help those in substance abuse programs, AMP helped to train the selected group’s attention away from food words (and, ostensibly, from the food itself) using a simple computer program. After just one session, there was a noticeable difference between the groups and the attention paid to food. For a generation raised on computer games and interactive learning tools, this could be a breakthrough in preventing overeating among kids.

Says Boutelle:

“Assuming attentional bias training is effective in larger studies, it could be provided in the form of a computer game which could be a stand-alone program or it could potentially enhance

[a child’s] ability to stick to a diet by decreasing the attention paid to food.”

In another review and analysis of existing studies lead by epidemiologist Youfa Wang, MD, PhD, of the University at Buffalo and conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, UB and other institutions found that even if obesity prevention programs for kids did not result in weight loss, they still had remarkable health benefits for kids. In addition to helping develop healthier eating and exercising habits, the most effective programs in the review helped to lower blood pressure in overweight kids, a key part in preventing cardiovascular disease.

Wang believes that these programs are crucial for kids:

“It is important to identify obesity intervention programs that can help children develop healthy lifestyles and keep BP at an optimal level because these programs help them avoid many long-term health consequences.”

Obesity is a complex issue

For many, obesity is not just about what food they eat and in what quantities. It is easy to say that eating less is the most important part of losing weight, but obesity (and who is obese) is a complex issue. In fact, researchers at American Friends of Tel Aviv University found that food is not the main driving force behind obesity. Professor Amit Gefen, Dr. Natan Shaked and Ms. Naama Shoham of Tel Aviv University’s department of biomedical engineering, together with Professor Dafna Benayahu of TAU’s department of cell and developmental biology discovered that cellular expansion, or how fat cells behave and influence other cells around them, are at the core of why overweight people become obese.

Professor Gefen:

“…found that fat cells exposed to sustained, chronic pressure — such as what happens to the buttocks when you’re sitting down — experienced accelerated growth…When they gain mass and change their composition, expanding cells deform neighboring cells, forcing them to differentiate and expand. This proves that you’re not just what you eat. You’re also what you feel — and what you’re feeling is the pressure of increased weight and the sustained loading in the tissues of the buttocks of the couch potato.”

This research could lead to new understandings of how to change the way that fat cells behave, including how to increase and decrease fat cell production in different environments. The idea that obesity can be felt (and prevented) on a cellular level could offer hope for those who have struggled with overeating and the stigma associated with it.

The complex problem of obesity is not just in how fat cells behave but also in how other systems of the body work. Other research out of NYU Langone Medical Center found that the immune system and a build up of its clean-up cells (macrophages) can lead to inflammation and insulin resistance. These macrophages secrete Netrin-1, a signaling hormone that attracts more macrophages into fatty tissue and also prevents these clean-up cells from removing pathogens and waste from fat. This can result in inflammation, which can lead to damaged organs and insulin resistance. The system that is supposed to protect the body is, in this case, causing harm. By looking at ways to control Netrin-1, researchers hope to help the immune system do its job but without going overboard.

Says senior study investigator Kathryn Moore, PhD, a professor of medicine and cell biology at NYU Langone Medical Center:

“Our goal, of course, is to let inflammation do the infection-fighting tasks it is supposed to do while stopping it from producing any disease-causing effects in fatty tissue that it is not supposed to do.”

Obesity can’t be solved by popping a pill…or can it?

In a discovery that they caution should be taken with a large grain of salt and a healthy dose of activity anyway, Harvard researchers have discovered a way to turn white fat cells (the bad kind) to brown fat cells (the good kind), taking a first step towards the development of a pill that could “replace the treadmill.”

Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) principal faculty member Chad Cowan and his team members at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a Harvard affiliate, say that even though they have identified two compounds in the body that can make this transformation happen, the road to a pill to trigger this response is a marathon, not a sprint. Even just finding a way to produce singular white fat cells and brown fat cells took four years, and developing a safe, effective pill to trigger the transformation of one to the other could take even longer.

Says Cowan:

“The good news/bad news is that science is slow. Just establishing proof of concept takes an enormous amount of time. We thought that working with stem cells would lead to the discovery of new drugs and therapies, and now it’s really starting to happen. A decade of hard basic scientific work is paying off.”

Decades of research into obesity is starting to reveal more layers to this complex issue. Read more about obesity, along with stats and other links to research on the topic at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

Image by Tony Alter via Flickr