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Researcher argues genes, not fast food, are to blame for obesity

At the Obesity Society's scientific shindig in New Orleans, 2,000 experts in the field chowed down on gumbo, jambalaya and rich sauces while a band played, booze flowed and people danced around with their plates of pralines and pecan pie.

But professor Barbara Hansen stuck mainly to the cold shrimp.

She was the founding president of the Silver Spring, Md.-based society a quarter-century ago, and she clearly knows a thing or two about health and longevity and weight maintenance. You can tell just by looking at her. Dressed in cocktail-party black with a neat silver chignon, she looked much younger than her 65 years, not to mention quite slender.

She may be the grand dame of obesity research, but don't mention her eating habits to her.

Shrimp just happens to be her favorite food, and the idea that we control our destiny where obesity is concerned - or that what we eat has anything to do with obesity at all - makes her so furious she'll come after you like one of the rhesus monkeys she studies as director of the Obesity, Diabetes and Aging Research Center at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

Hansen is not mean or even evangelical, though. She's scientifically clear and compassionate. And very passionate.

While at UCLA, where she was valedictorian, Hansen traveled to rural India as a political science major, aiming for a career in international relations. But the "appalling" health conditions and the hunger she saw changed the course of her life.

She decided then she wanted to alleviate sickness throughout the world. And today, as a physiologist and psychologist, she wants to change the way we think about obesity: People don't become obese by choice, she argues; rather they have "obesity propensity genes and physiology, of varying degrees."

So why is the obesity problem growing?

"It's my view that we've taken the lid off the environment around the world, even those that don't have McDonald's. People are free to express their genes. We have more people becoming obese as the economy improves - when calorie restriction is no longer forced upon them by lack or quality of food or forced labor," she says.

Putting the lid back on is another story, but in 25 years, Hansen's message has changed very little: Obesity is a physiological disease with no cure - it's even difficult to treat. Drugs have some effect, surgery can be lifesaving in certain cases and calorie reduction and maintenance (her mantra) are difficult but effective, Hansen says.

Our only hope is "research, research, research," she adds, and even that is seriously underfunded for a disease that is so prevalent and costly.

But the situation was much worse back when Hansen was a new faculty member at the University of Washington.

"I wrote my very first (National Institutes of Health) grant proposal, called `Obesity and the Regulation of Appetite.' I was interested in what makes us eat and what makes us stop eating, and finding out if we could manipulate those factors," she recalls.

After it got rejected for funding, she showed it to a colleague, who said: "`You've got to take the word `obesity' out of the title because it's thought of as gluttony, and that's not scientific.'"

One important aspect that has changed in the community since she first started in the field: Obesity is now considered a disease.

"It is a physiological disease," Hansen said. "It has a small behavioral component, but most of obesity is physiological. And because it's physiological it is very, very hard to fix with behavioral methods."

Unfortunately, she says, "the message that the press is currently giving patients and humans all over the world is wrong. And that message is this: `You did it to yourself and only you can fix it.'

"The problem with that is it blames the patient: `The reason you're obese is because you're not controlling your will.' But your will, in the area of food intake regulation, is physiology.

"I know that there is nothing we could do to the environment that would fix obesity," she insists, including removing fast food from our lives and soft drinks from school vending machines, or adding treadmills in every home or getting rid of cars.

Which is, of course, rather mind-blowing. "If I didn't have the credentials, you would think I'm nuts, wouldn't you?" she jokes.

Plenty of Hansen's colleagues at the annual meeting did seem to believe in diet and exercise.

Fitness expert Dr. Timothy Church rolled his eyes at the idea that exercise is not important, although he admits, "The battle has moved from weight loss to weight maintenance."

And at one particularly well-attended symposium, "Obesity During the Lifecycle and Metabolic Risk: The CARDIA Study 20-year Data," speakers offered evidence that years of drinking sugary soda and fast food increases body-mass index, often to the point of obesity. But the mere mention of the study made Hansen roll her eyes too.

"I know that it is not fast food," she said. "They have no evidence of that - zero proof. That's what I call politically correct science. Armchair science."

A look around the buzzing exhibit hall at the Obesity Society's 25th Annual Scientific Meeting last week in the Morial Convention Center showed companies pushing the new adjustable lapband, body scanners, lab-rat treadmills, extra large toilets and meal-replacement plans, among other obesity-related items. Hansen referred to some exhibitors as charlatans and profiteers.

"It's fine to say we have more obesity in an area - you fill in the blank - and then go and eliminate that thing. But the actual evidence that eliminating whatever that thing is will fix obesity - that's what missing," she said. "And even our social and behavioral, and epidemiological people need to be doing experimental studies to find out what, if anything, can be modified in the environment such that it affects body weight."

Hansen highlighted her own work with rhesus monkeys, demonstrating her drumbeat mantra that the only way to prevent obesity, for lack of a cure, is to restrict caloric intake.

The result, after 23 years of study, was that those on a restricted caloric diet lived much longer and did not get diabetes or hypertension.

Obvious question: Would that work with humans?

"Yes, but you'd have to put them in prison," Hansen said, laughing. "I'm serious. You'd have to put them behind bars and only feed them a certain number of calories a day."

What's fat-fighting professor Barbara Hansen's mantra for battling obesity? Until there's a cure, the best prevention is to restrict caloric intake. Steps like eradicating fast food from our lives won't do the trick alone, she says.

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© 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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