Fat Kids: What Makes Them Overweight?

Fat kids get made fun of. It's a fact of life. Why, then, would any child choose to be overweight?

If you believe the logic of our public health authorities, you arrive at the inescapable conclusion that obesity is a behavioral disorder. For whatever reason, fat children "choose" to take in more calories than they burn off. We may indirectly blame the problem on the parents, on our schools, on society, and on the fast food industry. But there's no doubt in our minds that fat kids get fat because they overeat and underexercise.

But advocates of this "calories count" perspective must explain a key paradox. Opportunities to consume more calories than we need are ubiquitous in our society. So why do only some of us get fat? Why not all of us? What about fat people causes them to get fat? If it's true that only calories "count," then shouldn't our bodies all behave the same when exposed to an environment that offers up excess calories?

Most of us write off this paradox. We blame genes or psychology. Fat kids were born with bad genes and/or developed an inability to "control themselves." But dig deeper into the argument, and it appears woefully inadequate. For instance, we all know a teenager who can cram down 3,000+ calories a day and not get fat -- even if he only sits around and plays video games all day. And we all know a middle aged woman who eats like a bird, exercises like crazy, and still can't get rid of the extra padding on her hips.

1. Here's an interesting article about fat kids and adults from the BBC News on this paradox: "Why do some people never seem to get fat?"

The article points out that:

"The science of weight gain is less straightforward than the headlines sometime suggest. Why, for example, do some people seem to eat what they like and not put on weight, while others limit their diet yet struggle to shed their bulk?

The article references a key study that Gary Taubes also discusses in his book, Good Calories Bad Calories:

"In 1967, a medical researcher, Ethan Sims, carried out an experiment at a Vermont state prison in the US. He recruited inmates to eat as much as they could to gain 25% of their bodyweight, in return for early release from prison. Some of the volunteers could not reach the target however hard they tried, even though they were eating 10,000 calories a day. Sims' conclusion was that for some, obesity is nearly impossible."[1]

2. Here's another puzzler for you, from a website called physorg.com.

Re: a study on low carb diets:

"It was important to that specific research project that volunteers maintain a steady weight. This worked for most participants, but there were a few people who seemed to lose weight no matter how many additional calories were added to their [low carb] diets. One of Horowitz's collaborators, Ariel Barkan, a Professor of Internal Medicine and of Neurosurgery at the U-M Medical School, noted that he'd seen a similar reaction in a rodent study, with the same diet causing some to gain much more weight than others, despite similar activity levels. It turned out that animals with high levels of growth hormone were resistant to gaining weight."[2]

We all think fat kids get fat because they've done something wrong. They've overeaten. They've not gone outside to play. They've plopped in front of the tube or the computer too much. Fat kids are to blame for why they're fat. And this idea, as we've seen, derives directly from the Caloric Balance Hypothesis.

But what about all this evidence that physiology must be involved -- growth hormone, in the study mentioned above? Doesn't this implicate hormones -- not behavior -- as the key cause of excess fat accumulation?

Surely many nutritionists, dietitians, and public health authorities would readily acknowledge that hormones can play a significant role in why we get fat. The problem is, once they acknowledge this, they open the "calories count" theory up to a devastating attack. Because if you tell fat kids that calories "count" and that bad behavior makes them fat, you can't then go around and tell them that obesity has a basis in physiology, unless you're willing to compromise the Caloric Balance Hypothesis -- in which case, all bets are off.

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1. Katie Fraser Why do some people never seem to get fat? BBC News Magazine (Jan 22 2009).

2. Source: University of Michigan through Physorg.com Why do some people gain weight when others don't? (December 16, 2005).

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