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Health initiative to study causes of obesity

October 16, 2012|By Mary MacVean
  • A new nonprofit initiative aims to reduce the economic and other burdens of obesity.
A new nonprofit initiative aims to reduce the economic and other burdens… (Getty Images )

Eat carbs. Don’t eat carbs. Eat as little fat as possible. Cut out white food. Eat like the Greeks. No, eat like paleolithic humans. Eat less, move more. The advice can be dizzying; and what’s more, the experts still don’t know exactly what to recommend, says a writer who cofounded an initiative that plans to try to find some answers.

“The government advice — eat less and exercise more — they don’t know if that’s right, says Gary Taubes, author of “Why We Get Fat” and “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and founder with Dr. Peter Attia of the Nutrition Science Initiative.

The organization aims to reduce the economic and other burdens of obesity.

The initiative, officially launched in September, has the financial backing of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and intends to fund research by nutrition scientists. Their specific projects are not finalized and so can’t be made public, Taubes said. But, he says, if all goes well, there will be “meaningful results” in three to five years, and “a compelling body of evidence” in a decade.

Obesity is a fairly young epidemic. The rate of obesity has gone from 15% in 1970 to 34% today. “The epidemics of obesity and diabetes — which exacerbate many chronic disease afflicting Americans — coincide with national nutritional recommendations based on poor scientific evidence,” the organization says in its overview.

Which isn’t to say that the institute’s projects will be easy to carry out, Taubes says.

“It’s excruciatingly difficult to do well-controlled experiments with humans. That is the fundamental problem of nutrition science,” he says.

For example, while there’s an association between plant-based diets and longer life, that’s not been proved and to do so would require an enormously complicated, long and expensive experiment. So instead, advice is based on animal and observational studies, he says.

But Taubes says there are shorter-term projects the initiative can sponsor.

Taubes has disputed the theory that obesity is a disorder of energy imbalance — too many calories and not enough exercise. The problem is more biologically based, and has to do with the kind of calories eaten and how they affect insulin levels, he says.

But the initiative’s projects won’t take his side; it doesn’t support any particular theory. In fact, Taubes says, many of the scientists the organization has reached out to disagree with him.

As he says in his book “Why We Get Fat”: “If so many people are getting fat and diabetic in large part because we’ve been getting the wrong advice, we should not be dawdling about determining that with certainty. The disease burdens of obesity and diabetes are already overwhelming not only hundreds of millions of individuals but our healthcare systems as well.”

mary.macvean@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @mmacvean

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