Did World War II Make us Fat?

April 20, 2013 | by

I just finished reading a great essay by Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories that was just published in the April 2013 issue of the British Medical Journal.

In the essay, Taubes discusses the competing theories of what makes us fat. Many of us have known that all calories are not created equal, despite the prevailing attitude that weight loss or gain is a simple calorie intake vs. calorie expended equation. If someone got fat, it’s because they could control themselves and ate too much, or didn’t work out enough.

It turns out that this belief wasn’t always so. In the early part of the 20th century, many academics believed in an endocrine based hypothesis — that the mechanism processing the calories is disturbed, causing weight gain and increased caloric intake. It also considered the underlying physiology of how the type of calorie would  affect the body’s metabolic response.

The Energy Balance Hypothesis

This is the prevalent model today that simply states that we need to eat less calories than we burn. This model was largely brought to the forefront by Louis Newburgh in 1920 at the University of Michigan and downranked other potential fundamental causes of weight gain.

However, even in 1940, a Northwestern University School of Medicine endocrinologist by the name of Hugo Rony wrote in Obesity and Leanness, “What is wrong with the mechanism that normally adjusts appetite to caloric output? What part of this mechanism is primarily disturbed?” He believed a regulatory defect causes patients to take in more calories than they burn.

The Alternative Theories

According to the Taubes, as early as 1923 Wilhem Falta (who was a pioneer in the science of endocrinology) believed insulin drove obesity since a “functionally intact pancreas is necessary for fattening”. Today, we know that insulin occupies the same receptor as growth hormone, inducing cells to store fat.

Another version of the theory was the concept of “lipophilia.” Lipophilia literally means “love of fat.”  In these concepts, Gustav von Bergmann, in 1908, believed that fat cells preferentially accumulated excessive calories, thus depriving other organs and cells of those calories, leading to hunger or lethargy, and ostensibly, overeating.

In my opinion, I think there is more to the equation this. It’s not just calories, but also a lack of actual nutrients that drives the body to eat more. When the food is not nutritious, it’s like getting a $1000 check that bounces. In nutrient-void foods, the body gets the calories like a $1000 check, but it bounces because there are no nutrients in that check. So it goes out to get more checks, trying to get some actual nutrients.

In both of the theories described in Taubes’ essay, it’s an internal mechanism driving the weight gain and hunger, not a simple lack of will to “diet” and “eat-right.” (Eating right is important, but calorie watching is generally not).

Did World War II Make us Fat?

Russell Wilder of the Mayo Clinic wrote in 1938 that the lipophilia hypothesis “deserves attentive consideration.”

Two years later, Rony wrote in Obesity and Leanness that the hypothesis was “more or less fully accepted” in Europe.

Perhaps that explains the French Paradox?

Taubes suggests that the debate came to an abrupt end after World War II. Most of literature for the endocrine based hypothesis came from German scientists, written in German.

In Grafe’s chapters on obesity, over 90% of the 235 references are from the German language literature. In Rony’s Obesity and Leanness, this is true for a third of the almost 600 references. But post-war, the German language references fall away quickly. In Obesity…, published in 1949 by two Mayo Clinic physicians—Edward Rynearson and Clifford Gastineau—only 14 of its 422 references are from the German language literature, compared with a dozen from Louis Newburgh alone. By the late 1960s and 1970s, when the next generation of textbooks were written, German language references were absent almost entirely, as were the clinical observations, experience, and intuitions that went with them.

If true, it would seem that Hitler’s regime continues to have a very long-tail effect, even today. Having said that, it wouldn’t be the first time that conventional medicine has taken a wrong turn. One only has to look at the whole cholesterol-hypothesis myth of heart disease for that.

In the article, Taubes describes the shortcomings of obesity and nutrition research. To the end of creating better research, last year he co-founded an organisation called the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI.org) to fund rigorously well controlled experimental trials. Hopefully, these efforts will lead to a better understanding of the true causes of obesity.

Read the whole article here.