Here’s the skinny on obesity research

Yoni Freedhoff is an author and assistant professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Medicine and the creator of the Weighty Matters blog ( about obesity science.

Q. Some of the Weighty Matters articles seek to debunk popular ideas, such as the belief that artificial sweeteners play a special role in gaining weight, or that when it comes to eating fruit, more is always better. What other ideas about obesity and health do you think are commonly accepted – but wrong?

A. The most commonly accepted idea about obesity and health that society desperately seems to want to cling to is that both are simple matters of personal responsibility. If that were true, it would mean that over the past 60 years the world has seen an epidemic loss of willpower … but I don’t believe for instance that 6-year-olds these days are any less willful than they were 60 years ago, and yet rates of obesity in 6-year-olds have tripled. To make matters worse, society also cultivates the notion that weight management requires suffering and teaches people that success is the healthiest life they can tolerate. Unfortunately, merely tolerable lives when it comes to food don’t last – which is why I try to help people to figure out the healthiest lives that they can actually enjoy.

Q. Where do you think the science of obesity is headed? What are some of the most helpful recent discoveries?

A. The years have seen some fascinating studies regarding the neurophysiology of hunger, including the discovery of the two seminal hunger and satiety hormones, leptin and ghrelin. Putting our physiology aside, in my opinion the most exciting research to date on obesity is the growing body of research in food and consumer psychology: That research will help in creating environments where behavior defaults to health.

Q. What else do you want people to know about obesity research?

A. That especially in regard to nutrition, being able to drill down cause-and-effect to specific foods or diets is near impossible. So if and when you see the next story touting a super food for health or weight, rest assured the data on it are nowhere near conclusive. And rather than worry about what the next best diet is, focus instead on decreasing reliance on processed and restaurant foods and strive continually to replace products with produce.