Q&A with Dr. Timothy Bartness

Q: Why did you want to establish the Center for Obesity Reversal?

A: I felt this was a vehicle that would form a structure for us to more easily form collaborations on this important topic.

Q: Why do you think obesity research is so important?

A: As you know from the statistics, obesity is literally and figuratively a disease of enormous proportions that has both a huge health burden as well as an economic one. Clearly, although obesity research has been going strong for about 20 years in terms of understanding possible ways of reversing obesity, the various treatments have been quite ineffective with the exception of the Roux-en Y-bypass, which is a drastic surgical procedure that has its problems as well.

Q: What are the main research topics the center will explore?

A: There are two ways to reduce obesity: decrease food intake and increase energy expenditure. Both topics will be researched. In addition, and most importantly, the mechanisms underlying the control of food intake and energy expenditure will be the primary foci of the Center for Obesity Reversal.

Q: What do you hope researchers in the center will be able to accomplish?

A: The hope is that we can better understand the mechanisms underlying obesity reversal so that the possibility of applying these basic research findings to actual treatments of obesity might result, thereby making the effortful means of reversing obesity more effortless.

Q: What factors contribute to a person becoming obese?

A: It’s all based on the first law of thermodynamics – you cannot destroy or create energy. Therefore, in its simplest conception, obesity is when energy intake exceeds energy expenditure. It cannot be anything else because it would violate the first law, which cannot be violated. More mechanistically speaking, we are talking about the interaction of genes and environment. Some people have metabolic rates that are lower than others (genetic) that cause them to expend less energy and some have neural processes that promote increases in food intake (genetic). Couple either or both of these with an environment where people do not have to expend much energy (driving instead of walking, sitting a lot, etc.) and one that has ample high energy foods (fast foods, etc.), you get the obesity problem.

Q: How much progress has been made in uncovering the scientific basis for obesity?

A: Considerable inroads have been made. The problem is that for both energy expenditure and energy intake, there are multiple redundant systems controlling each, so when you alter one aspect of either system, other compensatory systems take over, thereby negating the treatment/manipulation. The key is really to ‘trick’ the brain and the sensory information received by the brain about body fat, metabolism, etc., to think that one is fat when one is thin (after a treatment), thus not engaging the compensatory systems. This is no mean feat.

Q: Do you think our nation is close to getting its obesity problem under control?

A: Statistics suggest that childhood obesity rates are leveling off, but there are data to suggest that once you are obese at any age and then become thin, you have to ingest approximately 25-30 percent fewer calories than someone of the same weight who has never been obese just to maintain the same body weight. That’s forever. That’s every day. That’s a tough thing to think about and a level of commitment that requires intense determination and desire to stay a normal weight.

Q: Is obesity an epidemic in other countries or is the problem isolated to the United States?

A: It’s worldwide and as countries become more developed, along with it comes increases in obesity.

Q: Why do you think obesity has become such a major problem in our country?

A: We have cheap high-calorie foods, large food portions and move around less than people in many countries. It may be, too, that we were focused for a number of years on fat calories when the culprit may have been carbohydrate calories.

Q: Are certain populations in the United States more likely to become obese? Why?

A: Yes. Pima Indians in the southwest U.S. have the worse problems. African Americans and Latinos as well. This, too, would be genetic aspects, but also environmentally based somewhat on economics. It costs more money to eat healthy foods than unhealthy foods.

Q: What other health problems can result from obesity?

A: Cardiovascular/heart disease, Type II diabetes, some cancers, bone and joint problems due to the increased weight, some dementias, and the list keeps growing.

Q: What are your main research interests?

A: My lab and I are interested in how the brain communicates with adipose tissue (fat) through the sympathetic nervous system and how fat communicates with the brain via the sensory nervous system. This bidirectional communication seems to be responsible for controlling such factors as lipolysis, the breakdown of fat, and thus the principal means by which mammals, including humans of course, decrease their body fat so they can move from an obese to a leaner state. We are also interested in the neurochemicals in the brain that control food acquisition and storage. In non-human animals in the wild, this is foraging and food hoarding. But humans also forage for food (going to the grocery story) as well as hoard food (food stored in pantries, cupboards, refrigerators and freezers). We have uncovered a number of neurochemical factors that promote food hoarding in our non-human animal models of human food hoarding and are continuing to unravel the complex, multiple redundant systems involved in these behaviors. These behaviors are antecedent to actual consumption of food and are termed ‘appetitive behaviors.’ The notion is that you can’t eat what you don’t have and despite fast food joints, etc., greater than 80 percent of all food is still consumed at home. Obese people bring home more food and more high-calorie food than do lean people. Hungry people also bring home more food than non-hungry people. Thus, as your mother and grandmother told you, if you go to the grocery store hungry, you will bring home more food than if you are satiated. We all have experienced this.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: As indicated above, we know the answer to the obesity problem. Eat less and expend more energy. Unfortunately, it will have to be more of the former than the latter because exercise just doesn’t cause enough energy expenditure to make a huge difference. For example, running a marathon, 26.2 miles, expends for an average-sized man about 3,200 calories. Not that far from what they eat in a day. That’s not to say exercise is not important. It is great for general physical and mental health and great for helping maintain a healthy body weight, but for substantial weight loss, one needs to decrease food intake.