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Eat for Success, Part 5

November 3, 2010

Lego DNA

Rule #1: Geography is destiny, so do not live near fast food outlets. From the University of Leeds, in Northern England, comes scientific confirmation that childhood obesity is more likely to be found in kids who live near fast food restaurants, or attend school near them, or both.

Media liaison Paula Gould recently announced the results of a study undertaken by Drs. Lorna Fraser and Kimberley Edwards at this research center located in a city with 700 (seven hundred; it’s not a misprint) fast food joints. That translates to one burger bar, kebab shop, or chippie for every 1,000 inhabitants. Yes, they have different names for such casual eateries, because that’s just how the British are.

The generic term for a fast food restaurant is “takeaway,” and they flourish in every ethnic niche. But the basic menu is the same worldwide: sugar, fat, starch, fat, and sugar, plus various flavorings, dyes, and additives of murky origin and questionable purpose. Gould quotes Dr. Fraser, who with her colleagues had studied 33,000 children in relation to their nearest source of fast food:

These findings should be used by planners when they are considering where new fast food outlets should be sited. But we also need more data on the consumption of takeaway meals and levels of physical activity as well as the geography of these outlets.

Other curious scientists had previously found that high school students whose schools are near fast food restaurants, tend to be more obese than students who don’t have such easy access. This newer study concentrated on younger children, but it seems clear that no matter what the age, the bottom line is, as in so many things, “location, location, location.”

The geographical question is also being looked at on this side of the Atlantic. Back in May, Suzanne Seurattan reported on work done at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. Researchers at the Schroeder Center for Health Policy came to the same conclusion as their counterparts in England. The center’s director, Jennifer Mellor, told the journalist,

Controlling for certain household characteristics and certain child characteristics we found that living closer to fast food restaurants was significantly and positively associated with obesity.

But, important as location is, living at a remote distance from all takeaways is not necessarily Rule #1. The first rule is: Inherit good genes.

ScienceDaily recently published an account of the research done by the Center for Applied Genomics (CAG) at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital. Its findings strengthen the already fairly obvious fact that some cases of childhood obesity result from sheer family biology. Yes, there are environmental and lifestyle factors, but previous research, including studies of twins, had made it apparent that obesity has a strong genetic component. Now, this is even more certain.

The scientists scrutinized the whole genomes of more than 1,000 obese American children of European American descent, and 2,500 lean European American children as a control group. They also looked at the whole genomes of nearly 1,500 obese children of African American ancestry, and around the same number of the lean African American children.

They were looking for copy number variations, or CNVs, which are deletions or duplications of DNA sequences, and they did indeed find CNVs that were exclusive to obese kids, in both the African American and European American groups. The report says,

Although the CNVs they found are rare within the population, their data suggest that those individuals harboring such variants are at a very high risk of becoming obese.

The results of the study have no immediate usefulness in the diagnosis or treatment of childhood obesity. But they do add more data to the extremely complex array of information that has been accumulated, giving hope that the future will bring answers to how this epidemic can be halted.

Of course, as noted in previous posts, childhood obesity research is characterized by many puzzling and often seemingly contradictory discoveries. For instance, the Early Bird Study revealed that a child takes after his or her same-sex parent, which would seem to rule out a genetic explanation. The tendency toward binge-eating undoubtedly runs in families, but whether this is genetic or merely behavioral, is still open to question. The body’s ability to correctly handle and process insulin seems to be genetic, and that of course impacts the whole obesity/diabetes connection. Proneness to addiction also seems to be a biological disorder with a genetic basis, and this is important because so many problem eaters display classic addiction symptoms.

In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow outlines one of the long-held theories. The “thrifty gene,” he says,

… supposedly drives humans to consume and store as many calories as possible in times of plenty in order to survive in times of famine (starvation). In ancient times, when food was scarce and famines were common, people with that gene would have survived better than those without it, so the gene would’ve thus been passed on to their children and eventually to modern day peoples.

But, as Dr. Pretlow goes on to explain, this theory was first proposed and then later discarded by Dr. James Neel. So the “thrifty gene” is one hypothesis we can probably safely disregard.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Takeaway ‘clusters’ linked to childhood obesity,” University of Leeds, 09/20/10
Source: “W&M study: with childhood obesity, where you live matters,” The College of William & Mary, 05/18/10
Source: “In Childhood Obesity, Gene Variants Raise Risk, Study Finds,” ScienceDaily, 10/15/10
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,” Amazon.com
Image by mknowles (Michael Knowles), used under its Creative Commons license.

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