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Ever Seen a Fat Fox?

Human Obesity Explored
Mike Gibney
UCD Press
Ever Seen a Fat Fox? Jacket Image


From Chapter 1: Ever Seen a Fat Fox?

In the course of a harsh winter, a fox becomes thinner and thinner until he feats that he will starve. One day he comes across food inside a hollow tree, this having been hidden there by a man who believes the hole in the trunk to be too small for an animal to enter. The fox can get through the hole having become so thin. He eats all the food, but finds himself too fat to get out. He has to wait for a few days until he is thin again before he can get out again. {Aesop s Fables, The too fat fox')

With the exception of domestic pets, some experimental animals and some farmed stock, man is the only species that develops obesity. Some animal species gain fat when food is abundant and lose it when the winter comes and food is scarce. Unlike man, all of the animals in these species gain and lose fat when appropriate. But it remains a fact: we alone manage to develop overweight and obesity and it is only by the hand of humans that any other species becomes fat. A fox will eat sufficient food, and no more than that, to meet the energy needs of procreation, the procurement of food and the protection of its lair. Apparently, we share most of our genes with the fox. We have genes the fox doesn't need such as the genes for speech and language. However, the fox expresses far more genes than we do in those attributes of importance in hunting - the genes for the senses of sight, sound and smell. When we move up the evolutionary chain to our nearest neighbours, the great apes, we share even more of our genes with these animals, but again, they don't get obese. Foxes and apes digest, absorb and metabolise fat and glucose just like us and we share common hormones that regulate metabolism and regulate the control of food intake. But you've never seen a fat fox.

To understand obesity, its origins and its management, we must look beyond the biology to the social dimension of our world. Literally, billions of dollars and euros per year are invested in obesity research through private and state funding. The vast majority of this spend is on the minutia of the regu­lation of energy balance and in the majority of instances we use animals to study this minutia because we can conduct experiments on such animals that would not be considered ethical in humans. Such experiments can tell us a great deal about the metabolic pathways that lead to the accumulation of excess fat and we can be confident that when we see an obese person, we can explain in detail how things happened in terms of biochemical and metabolic events and how our nutrients were absorbed, transformed, transported, stored, released and oxidised for energy. We can explain the links between key organs from body fat, the gut, muscle and the liver right up to the brain, in the developing path­ology of excess body fat. But we cannot avoid what is glaringly obvious. All who are overweight and obese have persisted for lengthy periods in consuming more calories by way of food and drink than they have expended in terms of energy. They have also done so involuntarily, except in rare cases. So human alone overeats. If we share so many genes with all the other animal species that don't gain weight on a permanent basis, then we should be looking beyond complex biological pathways to understand obesity. Why do people overeat and why do they opt for an increasingly sedentary lifestyle? This is a very complex question and this book will seek to explore that complexity and to make the case that the so-called 'battle' against obesity can only be solved by a multi-level, multi-disciplinary approach, adequately funded by central governments and within a framework for action that has a long-term view. The present chapter explores the complex nature of modern human civilisation and how it might both contribute to obesity and at the same time determine the success of otherwise well-meaning plans to tackle the obesity question.