New exciting frontiers in obesity research


Some of you may be aware of that I used to do research on the role of behavior therapy and low calorie diets in the treatment of obesity, but that I realized some time ago that such treatment options did not provide any long-term solution to the treatment (or prevention) conundrum. Instead I decided to dig a little deeper and look into traumatic childhood experiences, which was very interesting, but to say that obesity is a result of childhood trauma would be a gross exaggeration and oversimplification.

Through a combination of listening more and more to patients as well as copious reading, I have come to focus my efforts on the early life (childhood) social environment. This also includes the time spent in the womb, and such factors as maternal distress and malnutrition, which has a huge effect on the baby.

The path to weight gain and subsequent obesity generally starts before the age of 5, so this is clearly the time we need to investigate more. What is becoming more and more clear is that any type of family dysfunction can very easily transfer to the child in the form of negative belief systems, negative emotions, stress, insecurity, low self-esteem, low self-worth, and so on. The real catalyst of family dysfunction is socioeconomic adversity, but obviously there are other factors as well, such as relationship discord, job insecurity, segregation, a lack of support and cohesion, disease, and food insecurity.

Let me stress that family dysfunction does not imply gross disturbances or failings, it can probably be quite subtle to have a negative effect, depending on factors like resilience and external support, perhaps from a significant other such as a grandmother or grandfather. More or less all families have some kind of dysfunction within them, it’s all shades of grey, perhaps not all the time but at least during critical periods. The effects is likely a balancing act between the¬†amount, duration and type of adverse social exposure, combined with the above-mentioned protective factors.

What is clear is that as we grow older, we carry the effects of those early years with us, consciously or not. If someone is exposed to a lot of early life adversity, it will only be a matter of time before physical manifestations occur in the shape of increased stress, inflammation, as well as metabolic and endocrine perturbations. There is also likely to be behavioral disturbances, such as eating to suppress negative emotions. Eventually, this will lead to a disruption of homeostasis and weight gain.

This why I am very excited to dig deeper into this new field of research that focuses on the child’s social/family environment, and how those early years continue to influence us as adults many years later. The ACE study, which I wrote about recently, conclusively shows that adverse childhood abuseis the #1 cause of early mortality, numerous morbidities, addiction and functional limitations, so there can be no doubt about the very powerful effects that adverse childhood experiences has on us.

It really is time we took those early childhood years more seriously in the obesity field. Personally, I think there is a gold mine of information there, just waiting to be explored. Hopefully this will get us closer to the root causes of obesity, which should be of great benefit for eventually banishing the whole epidemic.


Erik Hemmingsson