Scientists may finally have unlocked the secret to being slim

Some fascinating research has just landed from California (of course) which suggests that obesity might begin in the wiring of the brain – in other words, that certain people are predisposed towards obesity because of neural developments very early in life.

What this means, the scientists say, is that a new approach to weight management could involve drugs which promote the development of healthier neural pathways.

So far, the most effective drugs against obesity are focused on managing and 'retraining' short-term appetite. The new possibilities seem to suggest an altogether more holistic approach (perhaps more attention will also be given to the underlying psychological factors), so we're looking forward to further developments.

We're fixated about weight in part because obesity is such a killer – it's linked to more malfunctions and illnesses than anything else, even smoking. But we're also a little preoccupied due to the furious debates raging around the TV show Biggest Loser SA.

Suggestions from the floor is that it's a cynical exercise from TV moguls; a sort of modern-day freak show. Health24's DietDoc has questioned whether the show really does anything to help overweight South Africans – and statistics suggest that's more than 29% of our men and 56% of our women – get a grip.

We're also wondering how realistic is it – when you're weighing in at 130kg-plus, is diet and exercise ever going to be enough to shift the weight? We're wondering whether any of the crew are actually being slipped some pharmacological action, to deal with conditions such as insulin resistance.

And the recent injury has raised fears again about whether high-intensity, long-duration exercise is safe, even under the watchful eye of a personal trainer, when you're that overweight, that unfit. Lord knows, it's painful if you're the person doing the sweating.

What we're all agreed on, is that those advertisements in the break that suggest an over-the-counter supplement is a miracle weight-loss solution, are radically out of sync with the message of the programme.

Personally, I'm a believer in Biggest Loser SA. In part, I think it sends a powerful message that fat isn't a life sentence. It is possible to be "normal" – possible to be able to buy clothes off the rails in fashion chains; possible to play sport or go to the beach without feeling self-conscious. Obese people don't have to spend the rest of their life going through the embarrassment, as they squeeze down the aisles in aircraft, knowing that everyone's praying: "Please don't let him/her sit next to me!"

DietDoc notes something else that's special: 'It's so gratifying to see the figures and faces of the contestants emerging from their previous round and undefined shapes. Each contestant looks different – they have cheekbones, waists and their bodies are becoming defined. It reminds me ofbutterflies emerging from their cocoons.'

They're also emerging emotionally. Obese people are jolly, are defiant, are all sorts of things; but inside nobody's really that cool about all the prejudice that follows fat around. And if even one in 1 000 obese watchers is inspired by Biggest Loser SA to turn their life around, then it's worth it.

(Heather Parker, Health24, February 2008)

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