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What is causing the obesity epidemic?

Friday, December 05, 2008 Posted by Travis Saunders
As Peter mentioned in a post earlier this week, I defended my MSc on Tuesday morning. Following my presentation, the very first question I was asked was "What is causing the obesity epidemic?". I gave the stock answers - decreased energy expenditure at work and at home, as well as increased caloric intake and increased reliance on refined foods with poor nutrient density, etc. However, the question made me a little curious, so I decided to look it up after my thesis was over (I'm a nerd...).

The first paper I came to was one by Mark Tremblay and Doug Willms, and it is actually a study for which I was a subject while growing up near the University of New Brunswick! In the paper, Dr's Willms and Tremblay report that overweight and obesity in youth are negatively associated with socioeconomic status and organized sport participation, and positively associated with TV watching and video game playing. Certainly what we would expect, and exactly in line with the answer I gave at my defense.

While these conventional risk factors certainly play an important role, new evidence suggests that other, more interesting factors may also be involved. For example, in a past post I suggested that obesity may act as a social contagion. Further, recent research suggests that in some cases, obesity may actually be caused by a virus! For example, the AD-36 virus has reported to promote obesity in chickens, mice, and non-human primates. If true, we could someday have a vaccine to reduce the risk of future obesity. So while it appears that my 'stock' answer at my defense was correct, there are also other less conventional options which hold promise for the future.

While we can't do anything (as yet) about virus induced obesity, there are programs that promote healthy lifestyle choices. One of those is SOGO active (, which is being put on jointly by Participaction and Coca-Cola Canada. Youth can log their daily physical activity levels on the website, and those who maintain or increase those levels have the chance to become a torch bearer for the 2010 Olympics. I know some people may question the involvement of Coca-Cola, but I highly recommend people check out the site, and please pass it along to any youth (or program providers) who might be interested.

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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