For Fat Science Geeks

(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.

Link to Video. (Realplayer)  (Original Website).

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.

Caveat Auditor

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.

6 Responses to “For Fat Science Geeks”

  1. kateharding Says:


    I totally don’t have the science fu and am not sure I have the stomach for the fat-as-pathology stuff, though I admire your analysis of its place in the video. Just wanted to say I loved reading about Friedman and O’Rahilly in Rethinking Thin.

    And your pictures cracked me up.

  2. Stef Says:

    I have science fu but no fat hatred fu, so I won’t be able to listen to the lectures, but I’m especially curious about whether there’s been any study of people with my experience, which is “my body weight goes up or down but is never stable, even after years of non-dieting.”

  3. fatfu Says:

    Oh God yeah this isn’t for everyone. I almost titled it For Fat Fat Science Geeks ONLY – but I didn’t want to be all exclusionary. It’s a damn narrow demographic, but if you’re in it – I may be alone in it – this is a fascinating lecture.

  4. fatfu Says:

    Stef – I’m with you on the fat hate. That’s why I put the big warning in there. It’s tough to listen to this stuff filtered through the prejudices of people who just reflexively view our bodies as disease. And it would be nice if we could own this information for ourselves, instead of having the whole discourse about fat “owned” by Big Science, Big Diet, Big Pharma, etc. Anyway I’m trying to own it for myself. But to most people it’s just not worth the slog.

    But I don’t want to reduce these two particular researchers to just fat hating bigots. Jeffrey Friedman and his group have been pretty evangelical in fighting fatphobia and mitigating the damage done by obesity hysteria – admittedly from within their own paradigm of pathology. But I’m going to give credit where it’s due. Without Jeffrey Friedman and a few others pushing these issues, I’m pretty sure Gina Kolata’s book wouldn’t even exist, and the discourse would be completely owned by obesity hysterics like Kelly Brownell and weight loss zealots like James Hill.

    As for your question about weight fluctuations – I’m not an expert – the biology of fat is just an area I have a lot of interest in. And I don’t know of any studies that look at your experience in particular – There lots on on weight cycling, but nothing good that I could find in a quick review that breaks out weight cycling without dieting. There may be studies of what happens to people recovering from eating disorders in the long term that might be relevant but I don’t follow that very much.

    What I’d suggest doing is going to the fat studies list on Yahoo Groups (linked to in the right column on fat fu) – and ask there and see if anyone has any ideas or knows of any relevant studies.

  5. The Rotund Says:

    I AM going to watch this video because I am also a nerd. Go nerds! Go fat nerds!

    And the inclusion of unexamined fat hatred doesn’t surprise me – even scientists are products of their culture and our culture hates fat people. I think we’re in a time of flux right now and it’s fascinating to watch (and to take part in with activism) because people ARE finding legitimate biology to support stuff like HAES but they are still conditioned to think fat should be avoided at all costs. It’s a tug of war between science and cultural indoctrination.

    Here’s hoping science wins out in the end.

  6. Sharon Says:

    You’re right; these researchers are not fat-hating bigots. I would characterise them as “not it-getters”. They’re so focused on the workings of the human body that somehow they just don’t seem to see various things that to me seem glaringly obvious. For example, the viewing of certain society problems as problems caused by obesity, rather than problems with societal attitudes. It’s like they assume obesity is the problem and launch straight away into trying to understand and reduce obesity, without ever stopping to think “Hey, maybe its the fatphobia in society that’s a big problem, and maybe that can be tackled?”, or “Just because obesity is linked with these diseases, hadn’t we better not just ASSUME that weight loss / gain prevention is the answer?”.

    I support them trying to learn more about fat bodies, though. If fat people are to get proper medical treatment, then proper understanding of what goes on inside fat bodies (and indeed bodies of other shapes) is a necessary prerequisite to that.

    I couldn’t help but wonder at the second speaker, though, he’s clearly in the obese category, and I couldn’t help wondering whether he REALLY thinks that he’s pathological, just by being big? Is he viewing his work as finding things out for the benefit of other people, or does he really believe himself to be as diseased as he and his co-speaker make us fat folks out to be?

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