Guessing about Obesity Causes

“It is fact that people are getting fatter because of over-eating and too little exercise,” proclaimed someone selling himself on LinkedIn as a best-selling author and business performance expert recently. He went on to use his factoid as the basis for suggesting people with obesity should pay more for airline tickets. The hot debate with more than a thousand posts that followed gives a window into how people justify weight discrimination. But the real fact here is that presenting a singular factoid as the cause of obesity is a lie, because we’re actually just guessing about obesity causes.

Morgan Downey made this point recently when he counted up 82 different causes for obesity you can find in both scientific literature and popular press. Downey asks, “If a disease (condition) has 82 possible causes, can anyone say we know what THE CAUSE is?”

On the same theme, Gary Taubes suggests in a British Medical Journal essay that refusing to acknowledge our ignorance about obesity causes is what leaves us completely unable to make progress. He writes:

Rather than resolve this dissonance by questioning our beliefs about the cause of obesity, the tendency is to blame the public (and obese patients implicitly) for not faithfully following our advice. Another possibility, though, is that our fundamental understanding of the aetiology of the disorder is indeed incorrect, and this is the reason for the lack of progress.

The conclusion that we need more novel research to solve this health problem could not be more obvious, but it’s hiding in plain sight. Meanwhile research funding is overwhelmingly devoted to testing strategies to make people move more and eat less.

Click here to read Downey’s story on the 82 putative causes for obesity, click here to read the Taubes essay, and click here to read 1,136 responses to a depressing post about charging people for obesity, complete with an offensive picture of a fat abdomen (don’t say we didn’t warn you).

Are You Guessing, image from National Archives / Wikimedia 

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.