Fittingly, the study is titled “Canaries in the Coal Mine.” Could our inability to explain animal obesity with behavior be a warning sign? Perhaps we are also overlooking biological drivers for human obesity. But what might these culprits be? A particularly interesting candidate resides in your gut. Your digestive system is actually a complex ecosystem, playing host to hundreds of species of bacteria that do things as diverse as fermenting undigested carbohydrates and providing vitamins. They also regulate how much fat your body stores. – By SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN Published: November 9, 2013


The Co-Villains Behind Obesity’s Rise

Waltraud Grubitzsch/European Pressphoto Agency

Researchers have compared tissue samples from obese mice with those of normal mice to try to determine which behavioral or biological factors might cause humans to gain weight. Here, a 2012 experiment in Leipzig, Germany.

By SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN
Published: November 9, 2013

Why is obesity soaring? The answer seems pretty clear. In 1955, a standard soda at McDonald’s was only seven ounces. Today, a medium is three times as large, and even a child’s-size version is 12 ounces. It’s a widely held view that obesity is a consequence of our behaviors, and that behavioral economics thus plays a central role in understanding it — with markets, preferences and choices taking center stage. As a behavioral economist, I subscribed to that view — until recently, when I began to question my thinking.

For many health problems, of course, behavior plays some role but biology is often a major villain. “Biology” here is my catchall term for the myriad bodily mechanics that are only weakly connected to our choices. A few studies have led me to wonder whether the same is true with obesity. Have I been the proverbial owner of a (behavioral) hammer, looking for (behavioral) nails everywhere? Have I failed to appreciate the role of biology?

A first warning sign comes from looking at other animals. Our pets have been getting fatter along with us. In 2012, some 58.3 percent of cats were, literally, fat cats. That is taken from a survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. (The very existence of this organization is telling.) Pet obesity, however, can easily be tied to human behavior: a culture that eats more probably feeds its animals more, too.

And yet, a study by a group of biostatisticians in the Proceedings of the Royal Society challenges this interpretation. They collected data from animals raised in captivity: macaques, marmosets, chimpanzees, vervets, lab rats and mice. The data came from labs and centers and spanned several decades. These captive animals are also becoming fatter: weight gain for female lab mice, for example, came out to 11.8 percent a decade from 1982 to 2003.

But this weight gain is harder to explain. Captive animals are fed carefully controlled diets, which the researchers argue have not changed for decades. Animal obesity cannot be explained through eating behavior alone. We must look to some other — biological — driver.

read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/business/the-co-villains-behind-obesitys-rise.html?ref=business

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