One Big, Huge Problem

October 27, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds Brit Trogen


Obesity is one of the most misunderstood issues in health care. And, apologies in advance, one of the biggest. It's defined, along with "overweight" and "underweight" purely by BMI. And while most would agree that the height to weight ratio is probably not the best determinant of health, it doesn't stop most of us from using it as a measure of the general chubbiness of the population.


In Canada, a 2004 survey of adults found that 36% of us were overweight (42% of males, and 30% of females) while 23% were obese, evenly split between males and females. The remaining 38% of the population were found to be of "normal weight." 


Of course, the vastness of the problem doesn't make it any more relatable in the eyes of most who would put themselves in the "normal" category. But it's becoming clear that the problem isn't merely an issue of self control in adulthood in the same way we once thought.


The brain pathways that lead to overeating, and choosing high-calorie foods can be triggered in obese individuals even before they begin eating (and in the absence of hunger), by food commercials, the smell, or even the thought of food. And in some individuals, giving in to the urge to eat can trigger a reward pathway in the brain that mimics the effects of a dose of cocaine. In other words, telling someone to "just not eat so much" is sort of like telling a junkie to just not do so much drugs. 


But why is it that only certain people fall victim to the siren call of the Big Mac? We're now seeing that it's a cycle that starts very early in childhood, with behaviors and activities built into the brain even before preschool. In other words, parents supply the foundation for a perpetual cycle of obesity in a population. This problem is compounded by the fact that parents seem to have no clear idea of whether or not their child is overweight. But, all hope is not lost: if it starts with parents, why not end it there too? A recent study from UC San Diego found that in child weight loss programs, treating only the parents with a physical activity regime had just as big an impact on child weight loss as the parent and child treatments.


So parents, suit up. You're going to boot camp.


Boutelle, K., Cafri, G., & Crow, S. (2010). Parent-Only Treatment for Childhood Obesity: A Randomized Controlled Trial Obesity DOI: 10.1038/oby.2010.238



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