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Microbes and Obesity

Because people with food disorders are so hard on themselves about their eating, it heartens me to read about biological underpinnings of weight issues. The 4/5/08 edition of Science News shares some fascinating insights about intestinal microbes and overweight children. Microbes are small organisms like bacteria that inhabit the gut. A new study from Finland concludes that overweight and normal weight children have different kinds and amounts of intestinal microbes, and that while some of these microbes may actually protect children against developing obesity, others are linked to chronic low-grade inflammation which is associated with it. Normal weight kids in the study had twice the number of one specific bacterium and fewer of another than overweight kids. Moreover, the microbe which was more abundant in the normal weight children is also associated with an effectively functioning immune system.

How does this information relate to your struggles with eating, weight and health? It really depends on your perspective. Some people are relieved to know that it’s not insufficient will power or poor lifestyle choices which keep them overweight. They’re frustrated because no matter what they do, they can’t seem to either lose or keep weight off, and are glad to hear that, in part, their weight problems are not caused by something they’re doing wrong. Other people find biological information like this highly upsetting. To them, it says that there’s something defective about them—something that has always been there and which they can’t fix—and that no amount of motivation, corrective action, and lifestyle change is going to make a difference in their weight.

Although there’s no “right” way to view biological information about weight and eating, it should never be used to beat yourself up or reinforce powerlessness about changing unhealthy behavior. At best, it takes off some pressure; at worst, it forces acceptance of biological limits. The subject is complicated by people not knowing whether or not they harbor these microbes or other have other biochemical conditions which cause obesity.

How you take in this kind of information and use it is up to you. Ideally you’ll recognize that self-discipline, will power, and trying to find and stay at a healthy weight is far more complex than you ever dreamed and that just because you don’t have complete control over the process doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands and give up. Keep in mind that although you may not be able to do everything to maintain a comfortable weight, that doesn’t mean you should avoid doing the things you are able to do. So, do what you can do about your weight and stop struggling with what’s out of your control.