A few days ago (in late 2012; remember this is a Retrospective series), the Health page of the Financial Times (FT) led with the banner headline, “Scientists Link Obesity to Gut Bacteria.”Call me a skeptic, or even a “conventional thinker” (pulleesse, don’t call me that!), but I’ll just have to “wait and see.” A lot of serious scientists have been writing about this in the blogosphere lately, but this is the first that I have seen it in the “mainstream” media.
So far, I have been dismissing this talk as too “edgy” and too esoteric for my non-scientific brain to wrap around. Besides, I have just gotten comfortable with – in fact, I’ve fully embraced Gary Taubes’s alternative Carbohydrate Hypothesis. This theorem places the action – or rather the “broken” action, of the hormone insulin at the center of the obesity epidemic. And now some cutting-edge thinkers are moving on to another frontier – the human gut.
It’s a good thing, of course, that science is “advancing” quickly, but scientists would be the first to say that caution is and should be the “order of the day.” And I have no doubt it will. Everything will be “peer reviewed” (for what that’s worth!), and replicated with double-blind, prospective, trials, etc, etc. But journalism is not so constrained, and journalists often get it wrong. And, as a result, so does the public. And then the processed and packaged food industries pick-up on it, and all of a sudden, a box of Cheerios cereal is a cholesterol-lowering drug!
But this rant is not about the gut bacterium reported in the FT. It is about the response of a lecturer in biological sciences at Durham University (England). I gave a hearty guffaw when I read his reaction to the news. According to the FT, he said, , “If obesity is caused by bacteria, it could be infectious and picked up from some unknown environmental factor, or a parent. IT MIGHT NOT BE BEHAVIORAL AT ALL” (emphasis mine).
I apologize for “shouting” but I just couldn’t believe that he said this. I accept that the vast majority of the lay public believes that nearly 50% of all the adults in the U.S. and the UK are obese because they eat too much and exercise too little. But, for a lecturer in biological science at a leading UK center of research to say it?!! Give me a break!
In an email exchange I had with Gary Taubes on the day before I wrote this post, he told me that he was preparing a rebuttal to the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on a piece they had just published about how low-fat diets were associated with weight loss. I read the piece and decided that it was beyond my ken. I replied to him that I would leave the BMJ to him, and I would continue to fight “the good fight” on a different level. But when I am reminded how far all of us with an open-minded view have to “climb” to overcome ignorance, it is indeed a daunting task.
Anyway, the lead scientist and spokesman for the study, said, “This is a very important phenomenon. It is the last missing piece of evidence [that] bacteria causes (sic) obesity.” I laughed again, and again when the Durham researcher said, “Dr. Zhao’s research paved the way to intervene in obesity and could allow new drugs to be developed for treatment.”
His pharmacological bent reminded me of the drug developers who first came up with statin compounds to lower LDL, and thus Total Cholesterol (TC,) because LDL was the only sub-component of TC that could easily and effectively be lowered with a drug. This led to world-wide sales soon to reach 1 trillion dollars, and to dubious health benefits and myriad risks.So, while I am skeptical by nature, and that is a good thing both in science and in general, I am still open-minded. I can also hope that this is “a very important phenomenon” and that it is “the last missing piece of evidence” of what causes obesity. And just as cholesterol drugs to lower LDL developed in the 1980s, let’s hope that gut bacteria research, whether relevant to obesity of not, evolves as well. After all, as we frequently hear, “there are 10 times more microbes than human cells in our bodies, and they can be beneficial.” So, as science advances, particularly with recent progress in the knowledge of the human genome, a “breakthrough” of this magnitude would be welcome. Semi-starvation on a “balanced” diet, and boring and tedious daily exercises, don’t work for me. And my Very Low Carb Ketogenic Diet is certainly restrictive and requires a lot of discipline.