(Both fat “science geeks” and “fat science” geeks. Or even fat fat science geeks like me.)
I found a fascinating lecture on the science of fat and weight regulation by Jeffrey Friedman and Steve O’Rahilly (two big-shot obesity researchers) debating at the Imperial College of London.
It’s an hour and twenty minutes long and at times highly technical, but also dense with information and (I found) entertaining. I recommend anyone with the inclination and the science fu to follow it have a listen. (See my warning first, though).
It’s mainly an overview of some of the research that Gina Kolata was referring to in her book “Rethinking Thin.” (For something more accessible, here’s another in-depth interview with Gina Kolata on NPR’s On Point.)
Being a bit of a science geek is actually how I came to fat acceptance, which I know is odd since most of us have learned to think of obesity researchers as, um, not so much this:
….but a little more like this:
But life is strange. And so is the science of fat. Because at the same time that “obesity research” has gifted the world with obesity hysteria and possibly the worst era in the history of human civilization to be fat, it’s also uncovered overwhelming evidence that fat is largely genetic and a reflection of normal human variability; and has elegantly described the architecture of an elaborate physiological system that that closely regulates weight in both the fat and the thin.
So, no, fat isn’t a reflection of your character. Yes, you’re probably supposed to be basically that weight. And no, diets don’t work…and now we know why.
Here’s the caveat auditor – let the listener beware. This lecture isn’t fat positive in the least. And like all “obesity researchers” these two have both their fat advocacy moments (mocking diet ads and legislation that referred to fat as “gluttony” or “sloth”; showing how the “obesity epidemic” is just a slight shift in the bell curve) and they have their Strangelove moments (e.g. trying to “treat obesity” with a liter of leptin a day, and describing fat prejudice as a “consequence” of fat and all the more reason to find a “cure”).
Because although they construct fat as largely a reflection of normal human variability, they paradoxically also accept without much analysis the construct of fat as a pathology. In fact the lecture kicks off with a warning about the dangers of obesity — hoo-rah.
In part that’s just a function of the specifics of what they study – defects in the appetite regulation system that truly are pathological. For instance a child who can’t manufacture leptin will not only become very fat – he’ll also be unassuagably ravenous since his hypothalamus is under the impression that he’s has no fat on his body. So there’s a blurring here between that kind of “pathology” and fat as normal variability. (To be fair, the fat acceptance movement has been known to gloss over these distinctions too). But that conflation can be frustrating and frankly dangerous — since what is also blurred is how, when and why fat should be “cured.”
So on it’s own their critique is at best partial, and at worst one of those familiar one step forward followed by two steps backwards we’re so used to from the medical profession.
But as an adjunct to the larger critiques of fatphobia that we find in the fat acceptance movement, feminism, sociology, cultural theory, and obesity epidemic critics like Paul Campos, the molecular biology critique is incredibly valuable. And I believe it’s immensely helpful to understand it, not just for the fight against discrimination, but just to understand our eating and our bodies better.
And I guess I just find this stuff neat. Call me a nerd – I’ve been called worse.