Why Does Every Bit Of Science Reporting About Fat Cells Have To Turn Into A Conversation About "Curing" Obesity?

There's no evidence that BAIBA is a "cure" for diabetes or obesity, which, it should be noted, the researchers didn't claim, because scientists tend to err toward the conservative. Journalists took care of that for them, though.
Publish date:
January 8, 2014
fat, science, fat hate

Good news, everybody! Some science people did some stuff and they found out that when you exercise, your body produces a magical chemical that cures diabetes and the obesity!

Well...okay, I'm overstating my case a bit, but that's only because I'm excitable after all this media coverage. If I'm to believe the writeups on β-aminoisobutyric acid ("call me BAIBA"), this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Greater, actually, because unlike bread, it won't make you fat. The coverage of this study has really neatly illustrated my hatred of most science reporting as well as highlighting the totally bizarre relationship this country has with fatness.

So let's start with the study.

In "β-Aminoisobutyric Acid Induces Browning of White Fat and Hepatic β-Oxidation and Is Inversely Correlated with Cardiometabolic Risk Factors," published in Cell Metabolism, researchers discovered that when people exercise, one of the many chemicals their skeletal muscles produce is a protein called PGC-1α. It can stimulate cells to up energy use, which is useful when you are trying to get the most out of your body when you're running away from a herd of stampeding hippos.

The researchers also found that when white fat cells -- the kind used to store energy -- are exposed to PGC-1α, they start acting like brown fat cells, which burn energy. (That's what that "browning" was all about -- sorry, those of you who thought it referred to the Maillard reaction.) So, theoretically, when exercising, people are producing a protein that encourages their fat to burn off energy, thus lowering their weight over time.

However, it turns out that PGC-1α really sucks at getting out of muscle cells and into fat cells. Here's where the researchers found that the protein appeared to be interacting with the BAIBA molecule, which stimulates the conversion of white fat cells to brown fat cells. Then the researchers fed some BAIBA to a bunch of mice, as you do, and the mice lost weight, so they took a look at the famous Framington Heart Study.

This study includes a huge cohort of people who have been tracked for decades to follow their health outcomes, providing all kinds of fascinating information on long term health factors. The researchers found a low concentration of BAIBA in patients with known risk factors for heart disease -- and when people who were formerly sedentary started exercising, their BAIBA went up. So they published a study, as you do.

(I am skipping a few stages here, including controlled testing, peer review, and some math.)

Now, as with metabolic studies in general, this research is interesting on its face because now we know more about how something works than we did before. We have a better understanding of a protein produced during exercise, an associated molecule, and how both interact with fat cells. We have a possible explanation for one pathway of exercise-induced weight loss.

What we do not have is evidence that BAIBA is a "cure" for diabetes or obesity, which, it should be noted, the researchers didn't claim, because scientists tend to err toward the conservative. Journalists took care of that for them, though.

There are a couple of problems going on with this journalism. One is the jump to conclusions on the basis of scientific research, which is something people like to do despite knowing better. The second is the assumption that diabetes is rooted in weight. The third is that obesity is a disease.

So let's take these one by one: correlation is not causation. Study findings can be combined with other studies, used to show the need for more evidence, and used to back up claims based on those findings, but they can't be used in wild extrapolation. On the basis of this study, here's what you can say: exercising appears to cause people to lose weight. Here's one of the mechanisms whereby people may lose weight by exercising.

Here's what you can't say: BAIBA could be a potential cure for diabetes. For starters, folks, there are several forms of diabetes in the world, and I guarantee you that BAIBA won't do squat for people with Type 1 diabetes. Many people think Type 2 is related to weight, but the science behind that isn't hard and fast. There are a lot of factors involved in the development of insulin resistance, and while it's critical to research those factors and find out more about them, it's equally important to avoid assigning the issue to "fat people" and leave it at that.

Insisting that fatness causes Type 2 diabetes ignores other factors, which means that people at risk don't have an opportunity to get educated about preventative care and steps they can take. It also shames people for being fat, and suggests that fatness is simply a prelude to diabetes.

Furthermore, in cases where weight is related to the development of insulin resistance, BAIBA would be far from a "cure." For one thing, it would spend at least a decade if not more in a drug development pipeline before being marketed as a likely costly weight loss drug. Whether that drug would actually help manage or, better yet, prevent insulin resistance remains to be seen. Given the complex factors behind Type 2 diabetes, it's unlikely a silver bullet cure will ever be available.

And how about the idea that obesity is a disease? The AMA has classified it as one, effectively pathologizing an entire class of people, so it's not surprising to see the media to the same. The AMA based their conclusions on several things: fat hatred, and bad science. Despite repeated studies illustrating that there is not a strong correlation between being fat and being unhealthy, that weight alone is not a reliable health indicator, and that the Body Mass Index is not suited for evaluating health and health outcomes, many doctors and medical associations persist in claiming that being fat is unhealthy.

This limits access to health care, and, some argue, is a restriction of the fundamental human rights of fat people. When your very existence is reduced to a disease, it doesn't bode well for your treatment in society or your interactions with other people, and it's very easy to feel dehumanized when you're surrounded by media that refers to curing or eliminating obesity.

Covering the BAIBA study as though it will cure "obesity" presupposes that being fat is a problem, and that fat people want to be cured of it. And it reminds us that fatness is a bad and terrible thing to be eliminated, not just a natural variation and expression of human diversity.