I've made fun of Newsweek more than once here for being a bible of leftist orthodoxy. But I've also linked to articles from it -- once in a while, it publishes something both interesting and provocative. There is such a piece in the current issue, a column by science writer Sharon Begely called "Fat Canaries in a Coal Mine: Obese animals hold lessons for us." The "Big Two" usual explanation for both adult and child obesity -- lack of exercise and increase of caloric intake -- has to be challenged, she says, in light of startling information about increases in animal obesity in recent decades.
Scientists at the University of Alabama studied the weight histories of 24 species of animals -- we're not just talking about overfed doggie and kittie pets here -- and found that the percentage of obese individuals has risen in 23 of them since the 1940s (the oldest records they found). The odds of that happening by chance are 8 million to 1:
All these creatures live near or with people, however, which raises the intriguing possibility that common factors might explain their obesity as well as ours. Such as? Sleep debt, which increases blood levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and reduces levels of satiety-causing leptin. (Average sleep among U.S. adults has fallen from nine hours per night to seven.) Endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as BPA, which bind to receptors that trigger proliferation of fat cells. More central heating and AC, which means we burn fewer calories to stay warm in winter and don't get the appetite-killing effects of sweltering in summer. Infection with adenovirus-36, which causes obesity in lab animals and is correlated with it in people.
There are numerous others. Controlled trials have already failed to show that more phys ed reduces kids' weight (they seem to compensate by being more couch-potatoey at home). It's time to expand the net of possible suspects in our expanding girths before it's too late.
Obesity, in other words, is one of those issues that are a lot more complicated than we are led to believe by those pushing "solutions." Nobody really knows what's going on, yet the government is drawing widespread praise for a new $4.5 billion (over 10 years) program to make school lunches healthier and expand the list of those eligible for them as a way to combat childhood obesity.
This isn't to suggest people shouldn't exercise more and eat healtier -- that will help in the obesity fight, and it makes sense for overall health reasons. And how much the federal government should be involved in such things is an issue we'll continue to debate. But if we focus exclusively on those two factors -- goaded by a government that always knows less than it claims to, especially when it's determined to spend billions -- we are less likely to solve the mystery of our "expanding girths before it's too late."