Thursday, February 4, 2016

The shape of the future: Is obesity a crisis or just the latest stage of evolution?

As early as April, a new obesity treatment could be approved in the U.S. (and soon after in Canada) that allows users to “aspirate,” or drain, 30 per cent of the food they eat from their stomachs, before their bodies can absorb the calories.

The procedure involves implanting a skinny tube into the upper part of the stomach and connecting it to a loonie-sized port on the outside of the abdomen. After meals, a small device is attached to the port’s valve, the valve is rotated open and some of the gut’s contents can be emptied into a toilet.

The device’s makers claim it’s a low-risk, minimally invasive and totally reversible way to lose weight, although it sounds suspiciously like engineered bulimia. But then, our hunger for something – anything – to make us thinner knows no bounds.

On any given day, 10 million Canadians are on a diet. We’re wading through the tens of thousands of books on Amazon with “weight loss” in the title, and tuning into reality shows like A&E’s new Fit to Fat to Fit, where personal trainers gain globs of weight so they can lose it with their clients.

Yet despite a US$60-billion diet industry and increasingly urgent messages about the health problems linked to excess weight — diabetes, coronary artery disease, the list goes on — the world grows fatter. The prevalence of obesity has more than doubled since 1980, and is rapidly advancing in the oddest of places — China, India and North Africa.

In Canada, 14.2 million adults said they were overweight in 2014. One in four, or about six million, were obese. By some estimates, by 2019, half the provinces will have more overweight adults than those of normal weight.

Our collective overeating has become such a health risk, Statistics Canada recently warned it threatens to undo life expectancy gains from medical advances and decent drinking water.

But, as the race to find a “cure” for obesity intensifies, emerging research is challenging the panic over our growing girth. It suggests excess fat may not be putting most of us in mortal danger and proposes a provocative theory for our struggle to lose weight and keep it off: some kind of evolutionary shift in body shape is underway, a change perhaps in average height or the size of our brains, that will leave softer, doughier generations looking back at our hand-wringing and wondering what all the fuss was about.

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