Obesity’s Dual Causes: Behavior and Biology

We’ve figured out what causes obesity. Larger portion sizes at restaurants, lack of exercise and poorly balanced diets are the reasons our collective waistbands are growing. That’s it, end of story. However, according to a recent article in the New York Times, it may not be that simple.


New research is suggesting biological factors may be just as important as behavioral ones when determining obesity’s cause. One new study states the makeup of bacteria in an individual’s digestive system could play a role in whether or not they become obese. These bacteria are responsible for regulating how much fat is stored in your body, and vary from person to person.

People who are obese often eat differently than healthy people, which could be the cause of the different bacterial makeup. When bacteria from an obese person’s stomach were transplanted into healthy mice in a lab setting, the mice started gaining weight. Though there was no change in their diet, the metabolism of the mice changed, causing weight gain.

So what does that mean for people? No one is really sure what determines a person’s gut bacteria. Ideas range from environmental factors to processed foods to antibiotics. Another theory is that obesity spreads from person to person through social networking.

Obese people interact with their friends and families who in turn become obese. The exact reason behind this trend is unknown, but scientists think it’s possible some gut bacteria may be passed from person to person when they relatively close to one another.

The biology of a person could have as profound an effect on their chances of obesity as their behavior. In fact, the two are likely linked. As the biology of a person changes, they could start craving different, unhealthy, foods. A change in cravings would impact a person’s behavior and cause them to become less healthy and potentially obese.

The term obesity epidemic is one that gets thrown around a lot. With these new findings, however, that title may be less dramatic and more of an accurate description of what is going on. The author of the New York Times article suggests researchers should focus on the behavioral and biological causes of obesity equally. That way there is a better understanding of the problem, and a solution is more likely to be found.

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