Obesity and weight gain is treated as an epidemic in this country, and for many good reasons. Additional weight gain causes multiple health problems including type-2 diabetes and can exacerbate pain for many other conditions. But, what if what we believe is the absolute truth about obesity isn’t exactly the entire story? Medical science is constantly looking into the issue to learn as much as it can about why some people gain weight, some people lose weight, and what this means for everyone.

Importance of continued science education

Science education is essential to understand the underlying causes of weight gain as well as what we can do about it as a culture. Five years ago the American Journal of Public Health published a study regarding the stigma of obesity in this country.

“Despite decades of science documenting weight stigma, its public health implications are widely ignored. Instead, obese persons are blamed for their weight, with common perceptions that weight stigmatization is justifiable and may motivate individuals to adopt healthier behaviors.”

In the years since this study was conducted a phrase has evolved to describe the way we treat overweight people in our culture: “Fat Shaming.” The emotional components of weight gain are completely missing from the conversation and that can be absolutely detrimental to the fight for healthier lifestyles in the United States.

So researchers continue to study obesity both objectively and psychologically and some very interesting conclusions have been drawn in recent years.

Childhood obesity and blood pressure

In March of last year the University of Buffalo demonstrated that, among overweight children, weight loss programs do help reduce blood pressure even if participants do not lose weight. Childhood obesity is considered a monstrous problem in the United States so many communities are trying hard to make big changes in their youth culture.

One of the biggest concerns when it comes to obesity or weight gain is an unhealthy rise of blood pressure. Children who experience high blood pressure are at risk of carrying that trait over into adulthood which can cause long-term health problems if not addressed. Obesity prevention programs are demonstrating their worth because they do help overweight children lower their blood pressure even if they do not lose weight.

Carbohydrates and human evolution

Just a few days later the Imperial College London published a report that there is a direct link between the consumption of carbs and obesity. While supporters of the Atkins or Paleo diets have been expressing this concern for quite some time, they haven’t always had access to the entire picture. The report shows that there may be a genetic link to how our bodies process carbohydrates.

Researchers found a correlation between genes called AMY1 which are responsible for a salivary enzyme that begins the digestion process by breaking down starches. While most people have two copies of any gene, there are always variations. It appears that some cultures evolved to have multiple copies of this gene as humans shifted toward more starch filled diets. They also discovered that people with fewer copies were more prone to obesity than those with the ability to process more of the starch.

The right way to calculate BMI for mortality rates

In April, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania determined that the mortality rate related to obesity may actually be underestimated. Medical professionals use body mass index (BMI) to measure obesity. Doctoral student Andrew Stokes believes that the current method of using BMI to determine mortality is flawed. Doctors will generally use this number to predict mortality at the time of the measurement, but Stokes counters that it should be the lifetime high that is used in these calculations. He notes:

“Using BMI at the time of the survey to assess the mortality risks of overweight and obesity is problematic, especially in older populations, because slimness can be a marker of illness.”

What he found was that the percentage of mortality related to obesity was significantly higher than groups that were gauged at the time of the exam. His number was 33% while the comparable figure from traditional methods was only 5%.

Weight gain and inflammation

The University of Oslo also studied obesity in 2014, but in this case they were able to find a correlation between weight gain and inflammation. Their results demonstrated on a molecular level that overeating can cause increased immune responses and, as a result, inflammation. The connection between the way our metabolisms work and heart attack, cancer, stroke, or intestinal inflammation occur may be one of the most important studies yet about the way we eat.

Their conclusion: in general, we eat too much.

Poor nutrition lowers the body’s immune response, which increases the risk of infection. The immune system, functioning normally, increases the inflammation to fight off the infection. In their research they learned that overeating increases the body’s natural immune response. It creates excessive inflammation when it is unnecessary and this could lead to various chronic conditions. Their research could change the way we approach treatments for these conditions.

The magic pill

In December, as if it was written in a futuristic science fiction novel, researchers at Harvard may have taken the first steps toward creating a pill that can control obesity. While they were quick to say that the pill could not replace the benefits of exercising, the news could be groundbreaking in the way obesity could be treated overall.

Scientists used human stem cells to create a system that screens for compounds that could turn bad fat cells into good ones. In fact, their compound targets a molecule that corresponds to inflammation. As of right now, the possible treatment could also have the unfortunate side effect of compromising the immune system. More research will be conducted to determine if there is long-term viability of this research but the science is encouraging.

What this research means for pain patients

Chronic pain is a complicated issue. There are so many possible causes for so many possible conditions. However, this recent research into weight gain and obesity does provide hope and even answers for some individuals dealing with chronic pain. While a magic cure may not be on the horizon any time soon, the science shows that the way we eat may help us reduce pain responses.

What do you think about these reports regarding obesity and weight gain? How could weight gain or loss affect your chronic pain?

Image by Gavin Brogan via Flickr

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