Slippery Peel

Obesity and Diabetes: Peel and Shake

Simple solutions to complex problems are seductive. The dual epidemic of obesity and diabetes presents a pair of wicked problems, fused into one through a tight biological relationship. Surging rates of obesity plant the seeds for surging rates of type 2 diabetes. Severe obesity is a wickedly difficult medical problem, so simple solutions are appealing distratractions.

Peeling: An Appealing Solution in Brazil?

In Brazil a few decades ago, hunger and undernourishment were serious health problems for an impoverished population. As millions have risen from poverty, obesity has quickly risen as a threat to Brazilian health.

Last week the Minister of Health in Brazil, Ricardo Barros, made an alarming declaration, blaming mothers for childhood obesity. He said:

These children need to know how to handle food. Many of them do not stay at home with their mothers and have no opportunity to learn how to peel food.

Mothers do not stay at home today, and children do not have the opportunity, as they had in the past, to accompany their mother on daily food preparation tasks. And the ability to pick up a natural food and know how to consume it is getting more and more distant.

Teach children to peel their food. Obesity problem solved.

Bruno Halpern calls that statement “disastrous.” He tells us “this is an excellent example of how public health policies misunderstand the concept of obesity and are fated to fail.” Halpern is an obesity medicine physician at the University of São Paulo and an officer of ABESO, Brazil’s professional society for obesity research.

The minister’s statement serves only to hide a much more complex problem. Urbanization and lives spent in sedentary jobs mean that people in Brazil have money for fast food. And they have little time for traditional food preparation. Finger wagging does nothing to address more fundamental drivers of this problem.

But it’s simple.

Shake Off Your Diabetes

Another simple solution comes from some intriguing research in mice on whole body vibration. Studying leptin-deficient mice, researchers compared the effects of whole body vibration to treadmill exercise. They found similar, favorable effects on body weight, muscle function, insulin resistance, and liver fat. In short, they found that whole body vibration had metabolic effects comparable to exercise in the mutant mice.

It’s interesting stuff. But it hardly justifies headlines that claim “Vibration May Improve Diabetes Control.” Worse was the claim that “Whole Body Vibration Has the Same Health Benefits as Treadmill Walking.” That one totally ignores the benefits of exercise for heart and lungs.

But more fundamentally, this hype is based on a single study of genetically altered mice. Gyms are already selling time on whole body vibration machines. Though such therapy might be useful for specific conditions, promising a benefit for diabetes and obesity is simply unjustified. Maybe this research will lead somewhere. Or maybe not.

Unfortunately, peeling away obesity and shaking off diabetes won’t solve these daunting problems. Real solutions come from real science and sound policies.

Click here for more from Brazil’s Minister of Health and here for more on obesity in Brazil. For the study of whole body vibration in mice, click here. Science magazine reports on it here.

Slippery Peel, photograph © Stuart Crawford / flickr

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March 19, 2017