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Patron: Her Majesty the Queen


The Royal Scottish Society of Arts
Showcasing Scotland's Science, Technology and Innovation

2nd Meeting of the 184th Session (2004-2005)

Diet, phenotypes and obesity

Dr James Stubbs
Senior Research Scientist - Energy Balance & Obesity Research Division,
Rowett Institute, Aberdeen

In the Wolfson Suite, Ground Floor
Edinburgh University Library
George Square, Edinburgh
On Monday 6th December 2004, at 7 pm

Most adults in our society are overweight or obese. Overweight is a prelude to obesity. The secular trend of increased obesity prevalence is getting worse. Overweight, obesity and the attendant health burden to society will be major issues for governments, health professionals, the food industry and consumers for some time to come. Despite the current interest in genetics and obese phenotypes, the molecular revolution in obesity research has so far failed to deliver any serious solutions that can be implemented as public health policy. There are numerous mechanisms and ideas for how to control weight but unless we can relate these in a way that people will appreciate we are losing the battle.

There is an urgent need to develop new behavioural and dietary approaches to weight management in two ways:- weight control (preventing the development of obesity) and sustained weight reduction (in order to treat obesity). At the present time dietary approaches to weight management are remarkably rudimentary. Fat reduction strategies have become the established paradigm for preventing weight gain and in attempting weight loss. However, the explosion of the low-fat food market and strategies to increase consumption of low-fat foods have produced little evidence that this approach induces any large negative effect on energy balance and body weight in the longer term. Furthermore there are a large number of dietary approaches to weight loss available. Despite this, the majority of those who lose weight by dietary means cannot control or sustain the loss. There is therefore a need to go beyond fat reduction strategies and develop second-generation dietary approaches to weight management that will provide the consumer with a greater choice of solutions to the problem of weight control.

In order to enhance weight control in the overweight and generate sustained weight reduction in the obese we need to increase our understanding in three key areas:-

  1. What makes some people susceptible to diet induced obesity and how can we help them? It is important to understand the psychological, behavioural, metabolic and genetic markers of susceptibility and resistance to weight gain. However, this knowledge will only facilitate targeting of dietary approaches to specific vulnerable groups if we can translate these scientific concepts into terms that are relevant to the every-day life of the people concerned.
  2. We need to develop the fundamental science of weight loss to provide a clear evidence base of what does and does not work. It is essential to replace the hearsay, gossip and aggressive marketing of popular diets with a sound evidence base.
  3. We need more comprehensive analyses of the strengths & limitations of new dietary approaches to weight management, and how different people respond to them, in order to better match solutions to the requirements and lifestyles of different people.

It is crucial to empathise with how people think and feel about the various solutions on offer rather than simply prescribing doses of Calvinistic self- denial in the pursuit of puritanical improvements in biomedical indices of health status. People want to be happier, sexier and to enhance their social and working relationships far more than they want to decrease plasma cholesterol, insulin and decrease biomarkers of cardiovascular disease. While part of the development of obesity is genetic at present its treatment is behavioural. We "sell" obesity prevention/treatment on a health platform but people buy into it for personal and social reasons. When we can articulate our scientific solutions in terms of the specific hopes and aspirations of people at large, we will be able to empower people to better control their body weight, through development of advanced products, tools and advice tailored to meet the specific needs of different consumers.

Location of meeting

Society Business

The President, Dr Stuart Monro, will be in the Chair

Members of the Public are welcome to attend

Jane Ridder-Patrick, Secretary

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