New York Times Interview

My conversation with Claudia Dreifus of the New Times can be found here.  I have to commend Claudia for putting in a great deal of effort on this piece. I never realized that they were so much work.  The published interview is a very condensed version of our many conversations.  Claudia did her very best to make sure everything was accurate but some nuance had to be sacrificed for space.  For example, I was engaged but not yet married when I moved to NIH.  Also, I want to point out that I did know that a calorie was a unit of energy but I had no idea that the food Calorie is really a kilocalorie nor how many Calories are contained in common food items.

One of the things that got cut from the story was that I heard about the job at NIDDK from John Rinzel.  The Laboratory of Biological Modeling that I’m now part of, used to be called the Mathematical Research Branch and John was its chief for twenty years. Wilfrid Rall was the chief before John. A brief history of the lab can be found here. One could argue that this was where computational neuroscience was established. Bard Ermentrout is among the many computational neuroscientists that passed through the lab. The branch actually predates the NIDDK and was put there for administrative reasons even though it focused on neuroscience.  However, near the end of John’s tenure as chief, the institute had less enthusiasm for the lab and resources were reduced.  John ended up leaving for NYU. Marvin Gershengorn came in as the new scientific director in the early 2000’s and he wanted to rebuild the lab. I have no doubt that I got the job because of the input Marvin received from John. Although Marvin was interested in obesity, he didn’t compel me to work on the topic.  He was very good about giving me and the lab freedom to work on anything interesting. Right now there are four PIs in the lab – Artie Sherman, Kevin Hall, Vipul Periwal and myself, and we work on a variety of biological topics although mostly with some connection to diabetes and metabolism. One thing that worried me about the piece, aside from a backlash from the food industry, was that it would pigeonhole me as an obesity researcher. I’m still very much interested in many topics including neuroscience, genetics and gene induction.

The last thing that doesn’t really make it through is that our argument for excess food causing the obesity epidemic is not just based on correlations between the increase in food supply and average body weight.  What we did was to take the actual USDA reported food availability per person, feed it to our calibrated model and showed that it more than explained the weight increase.  It may be that other factors liked decreases in physical activity are involved but they are not necessary to explain the obesity epidemic.  Those that doubt it was caused by excess food must show that all of it was thrown away.  We are already arguing that most of it was wasted.  Finally, I don’t really know how to stem the obesity epidemic.  I’m not sure that making food more expensive through taxation is the correct solution since it would cause hardship for low-income people.  I do think that curtailing food marketing to children would help but I’m not hopeful that it would ever happen.


Correction: Jun 7, 2012.  Will Rall was a member of the MRB but was never the chief.

15 thoughts on “New York Times Interview

  1. Hi, I’m curious about your thoughts on an article I also saw in the NYT a few months ago called “The Fat Trap”: The idea is that if you get up to a certain weight and stay there for awhile, then your body will develop “defense mechanisms” against losing that weight.

    When you say,

    > That’s because if you reduce your caloric intake, after a while, your body reaches equilibrium. It actually takes about three years for a dieter to reach their new “steady state.” Our model predicts that if you eat 100 calories fewer a day, in three years you will, on average, lose 10 pounds — if you don’t cheat.

    Is this basically another–perhaps clearer–way of stating the “fat trap”? Looking for some wisdom here.


  2. Hi Andy, I don’t recall everything in the article but I think I agreed with most of it. I do believe that when we gain weight, there is a defense mechanism that maintains it. I think this defense mechanism is mostly in appetite control. Our thresholds for hunger and satiety get reset and they don’t come back. I call this the ratchet hypothesis. We will then feel perpetually hungry if we try to go back to our old weight. I have been trying to prove this in a rodent model.


  3. I thought the article was pretty good. One important point is that when we calculated the difference between the per capita US food supply and the amount needed to generate the US obesity epidemic, we correctly predicted the 50% progressive increase in food waste found in landfills which was independently confirmed by EPA data. Only one third of the increase in the per capita food supply was actually consumed to generate obesity, whereas two thirds was thrown in the trash!


  4. Isn’t it possible that the greatest increase in those extra calories over the years was carbohydtrates and that this has been a significant contributor to obesity?


  5. The idea that the overproduction of food is to blame for our poor nutritional habits was put forth by Michael Pollan years ago. I believe he fingers Earl Butz, Nixon’s ag secretary, as the main culprit. I ‘m not sure, but I don’t think Pollan was the first to make this connection.


  6. There are certainly others who have made the claim that food overproduction is the cause of the obesity epidemic. However, those claims were mostly based on correlations. We were able to show a metabolic connection.


  7. Hi, I found the NYT piece very interesting and would like to learn more details. Can you point me to a paper or the slides from the AAAS meeting?

    Also, I played a bit with the simulator. Do you think that calories expended via increased physical activity may be partially offset by increased hunger (leading to more calories consumed) after such activity? I’m wondering how the brain adapts to changes in physical activity.


  8. You can find all my recent papers and talks on the subject if you click the obesity link in the Categories section on the main page of this blog. The data on physical activity and food intake is mixed. It seems that some people eat more in response to exercise while others don’t.


  9. The interactive graph (fromthe article) doesn’t work. The calories it says I need to be eating to maintian the weight I am at right now is 2800+! I am eating between 800-1200 calories a day and NOT losing weight AT ALL.

    After putting in my goal weight and giving myself 365 days to achieve it, the graph says I would need 1337 calories a day to lose that but I am eating LESS than that many calories and NOT losing.

    I lost 110+ lbs eating 800-1200 calories a day and have remained at the weight I am now for over a year eating that amount of calories.

    I think our bodies lose weight for a while and then adapt to the lowered caloric intake and stop losing weight. I would have to lower my calorie intake even further (to unhealthy levels) in order to lose weight but if I did that, then when I went back to eating the calories they say I should to maintian the new weight, (at 165 lbs at my age and gender and activity level, they say I would need to eat 1986 calories a day to maintain) I would GAIN weight. No one can live on 500-800 calories a day but that’s what I would have to eat in order to lose weight this time.

    I have tried exercise (both cardio and weights) and that only makes me hungry and even when I don’t eat, I still don’t lose weight. I have been at this my whole adult life.

    My fasting insulin (before he weight loss and change in eating) was 29.5. I was told it should be below 10 so to get it there I had to stop eating carbs of any kind. Now I am keeping my fasting insulin at 9. Despite having lost 110+ lbs and kept it off for over a year, I cannot seem to lose any more weight and I need to because at 5 feet, 8.5 inches tall and 52 years old I cannot remain at 260 lbs. That’s just not healthy.

    No one seems to know anything when it comes to bodies, weight, adaptations to caloric intake, metabolism, and genetics.

    This is why I feel like science has not caught up with how our bodies really react to weight loss.


  10. Carson– a book called “Lights Out!” talks about how artificially-lengthened days due to modern electric lighting has tricked our endocrine systems and other cellular light receptors into thinking the days are longer, i.e., Summer. Typical mammalian Summer behavior is to gorge on carbs and sugar to put on fat for Winter, but that Winter never comes, so for us it is all feast and no famine.
    Animals in a pre-hibernation state are obese, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, early stages of heart disease and cancer, elevated insulin, etc. Emerging from hibernation those indicators have returned to a normal range, but in us they don’t.
    Hence, almost all modern health ailments–obesity included–can be halted and reversed simply by sleeping at night. I follow the natural day/night cycle myself and now am at my ideal weight, 175 lbs., without any other method. I simple no longer crave carbs and sugar. I don’t even need to exercise much.


  11. Calories are the basic unit of energy found in all foods and are necessary to maintain the body’s vital functions or basil metabolic rate. The amount of calories a person needs depends on factors like their age, gender, and lean muscle mass. Eating too few calories for a prolonged period of time causes a person to become underweight (per the BMI) leading to muscle atrophy, weakened immunity, and eventually, organ failure…

    Take a look at our online site too


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