Personal Health

Could a Common Cold Virus Be Helping to Make America Fat?

An intriguing theory about what may be driving an epidemic.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Ask somebody what makes people get fat, and you’re bound to hear something about too much bad food and too little exercise. And that’s undoubtedly true—scientists have long been warning that our sedentary lifestyles and overconsumption of processed, addictive foods are wreaking havoc on our waistlines.

But many researchers think that can’t be the whole story; we’ve gotten too fat, too quickly. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one out of three Americans is obese, with a dramatic surge occurring between 1990 through 2010. Obesity and overweight now account for nearly one of 10 deaths in America, and cost us $223 billion a year. Because of obesity, children today may end up dying younger than their parents.

Investigators have pointed to a range of factors which may be contributing to America’s obesity epidemic, including complex genetic indicators; television viewing; hormonal issues; lack of sleep; social cues; gut bacteria; exposure to “obesogens” (chemical compounds found in common products like vinyl shower curtains and non-stick coating on pans); certain medications; and even modern heating and air conditioning.

One of the most intriguing potential culprits under investigation is a common cold virus. The scientist who stumbled upon this possibility thinks that it may be a key factor in the Western obesity explosion.

Several years ago Nikhil Dhurandhar, a veterinary pathologist in India, was researching chickens felled by a cross-country flu virus. He noticed something weird: before they died, the chickens infected with the “adenovirus” packed on weight instead of losing it, as sick animals normally do. The question was why.

Dhurandhar, now a professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, conducted further research with his colleagues, focusing on humans and other mammals infected with adenoviruses. They started with a virus called AD-36, a common cold virus, and found that people who showed signs of having been exposed to the virus had a much greater chance of being fat than skinny. Further research showed that one in five obese people had signs of adenovirus infections. On average, they were over 28 pounds heavier than people who had never had the virus. 

Picking up the thread, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, conducted a study and found that children carrying the virus tipped the scales at nearly 50 pounds more than those who didn’t. Associate professor of clinical pediatrics Jeffrey Schwimmer, who led the study published in the peer-reviewed US journal Pediatrics, summed up his view on the significance of these findings:

"This work helps point out that body weight is more complicated than it's made out to be. And it is time that we move away from assigning blame in favor of developing a level of understanding that will better support efforts at both prevention and treatment.”

We have to note here that the notion of “infectobesity” is still controversial among scientists. Some find the Schwimmer study too small to demonstrate a clear link between the virus and childhood obesity, and call for further research. Other critics of the study charge that it is just a way to “rationalize fat.” On the flip side, some are encouraged that if obesity can be linked to viruses, scientists might be able to develop a vaccine, and others have noted that the findings could help reduce the stigma faced by overweight people, especially children.

Researchers working on the possible virus-obesity connection are still trying to figure out exactly how the virus could program the body to put on weight. They think it may affect both existing fat cells and cells that have the potential to store fat. Your body gains fat by making new fat cells after your existing fat cells are full. The adenoviruses, the thinking goes, may boost the amount of fat that existing fat cells can hold and accelerate the maturing of new fat cells.

Researchers underscore that while AD-36 may be linked to weight gain, other factors likely play a bigger role in causing obesity. Any additional weight linked to the virus appears to be a relatively small percentage compared to an obese individual’s overall weight. There’s also the mystery that some lean people carry the virus but don’t seem to be susceptible to weight gain.

Researchers also emphasize that even if the virus does contribute to obesity, that does not mean you can catch it from a fat person—the virus would have long since stopped being contagious by the time extra weight appears.

Medical research is stuffed with conflicting theories on the causes of obesity. We are still in the early stages of understanding what appears to be a devilishly complicated phenomenon, involving a potentially long list of physical and environmental factors.

What is clear is that simply assuming that being obese is the sole result of poor individual choices is both unfair and inaccurate. And it increasingly looks as if obesity is a medical issue that requires appropriate, individualized treatment—something insurance companies would prefer to deny. The good news is that the trend of viewing obesity as a disease rather than a failure of willpower is going in the right direction: since the American Medical Association officially announced that obesity is a disease in 2013, more insurers are expected to cover the cost of treatment.

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham's Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore. 

 

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Environment
Food
Media
World