Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Information overload

One of my favorite cartoons, which I have pasted on my desktop computer, shows a man with a little beach pail standing on a beach while a huge wave (which looks like the woodcut "Great Wave Of Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusa) is about to break over him. The man is saying, "Eureka! More information."

(I can't show the cartoon here because it's copyrighted. I was going to link to the author Ted Goff's page, but he's apparently updating his website and the links don't work for now.)

This cartoon illustrates how I feel about science news these days. I get about 150 Eurekalert science press releases every day, as well as the tables of contents from a lot of journals. And it seems as if just as some fact is generally accepted, a paper comes out refuting that fact.

Also, science research is getting much more technical these days. Unless a study is commissioned by some commercial group like the the California Walnut Commission, which funds a lot of studies showing the health benefits of walnuts when some of those benefits might be found by eating similar nuts, people no longer tend to publish simple studies saying that factor X increases or decreases diabetes symptom Y. Instead the authors (often 20 or more) drill down to the molecular level and try to show that factor X increases or decreases the level of numerous cell factors that govern gene expression or hormone activity.

Unless the reader has a background in biochemistry or molecular biology, I figure the reader probably wouldn't understand these studies (sometimes I don't either), so there's no point in discussing them.

Also,  unless I think there's a major flaw in the evidence, I see no need to link to a study that has been picked up by all the news media, something like "Eating pickles and figs will make you lose 10 pounds in a week." You'll most likely see that study on the TV news anyway.

All this is a way of explaining why I'm not blogging much at the moment. But I haven't disappeared. I continue to try to keep up with new research developments, and when something both interesting and comprehensible by the average reader comes out, I'll let you know.

Hang in there. I'm trying to.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Is Childhood Obesity Psychological?

"Is Childhood Obesity a Psychological Disorder?" says a headline in a press release from Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Now, many people get their information from headlines and don't read the articles. Also, a headline with a question mark suggests that the answer is Yes. If it were no, it wouldn't usually be newsworthy, akin to asking if childhood obesity were related to the name of the child's kindergarten teacher.

So this headline suggests that childhood obesity is a psychological disorder, and although there are many definitions of "psychological," a common one is "it's all in your head," meaning it's not a real disorder, and suggests that these kids are emotionally unstable and could become thin if they really wanted to.

In fact, the article focussed on brain scans of overweight or obese and normal-weight adolescents. They found that after showing the adolescents words describing various kinds of food, although the brains of all the participants were stimulated in areas that support reward and emotion, the overweight/obese ones had less activity in brain areas that support attention and self-regulation. I'd call this a brain disorder, not a psychological disorder.

As you might expect, when offered a buffet after the testing, the overweight/obese adolescents ate more than the lean ones.

This study is interesting, but I think the headline reflects an unconscious bias against fat people, suggesting that fat children have psychological problems. If the brains of overweight people are indeed different, we should try to figure out why they're different and then figure out how to normalize them.

I'm sure there are some overweight people who overeat because of psychological traumas. But there are others who overeat because they have differences in their hunger sensations, for example the rare children who lack leptin. And there are others who don't actually overeat but have metabolisms that are superefficient at converting food into fat.

It would be nice if all weight problems had only one cause so it would be easy to fix, but that's not the case. Until we have the solutions, we should at least stop stigmatizing overweight people and instead help them heal.

real. , and many