Science Corner: Cutting the String on Yo-yo Dieting

pie photo

A very accurate pie chart depicting the precise quantity of pie remaining to eat. (Photo by sciondriver )

I’m not here to tell you how to celebrate the holidays; whatever you do, do it all for the glory of the Lord. I simply observe that there is a lot of diet discussion this time of year, and so a new paper examining why dieting works and more significantly why it doesn’t work caught my eye. Yes, it involves the microbiome; turns out that Innerspace is the final frontier. Mice that switched back and forth between a high fat diet and a “regular” diet actually gained more weight than mice on a high fat diet all the time, mirroring challenges some people report when they alternate diet plans with less restricted eating.

The weight gain was attributed to changes in the bacteria living in the digestive tracts of the mice, changes in response to the diet cycles but which persisted longer than the cycles. Basically, the mice and their bacterial digestive assistants were prepared to handle one kind of food but getting another and the mismatch results in weight gain. Getting the bacteria on the right digestive page requires consistency and a long-term commitment to the change. The transition may go smoother if an effort is made to fill in for what the bacteria lack while they get caught up; the linked story points to flavonoids present in celery and citrus.

Having given mice some cookies, I got thinking about the challenges of systemic change in other contexts. We may want progress to steadily ratchet towards whatever goal we have in mind, but not all elements of a system change at the same pace. Exhibit B: Marvel Comics revealed Monday how their flagship X-Men comics will look after a spring revamp. Many fans were disappointed by the lack of diversity among the announced characters; only 1 out of 11 featured heroes is not Caucasian (the metal guy is Russian and the blue fellow is German). This isn’t the most homogeneous X-Men line-up, but it is a low point for racial diversity in recent history. Since the X-Men are discriminated against within their fictional universe for the circumstances of their birth, they’ve become icons to a variety of real world minorities. Those folks would understandably like to see themselves represented literally as well as metaphorically.

Despite that obvious thematic incentive, diversity of representation has waxed and waned. One reason may be the homogeneity of the creative and editorial personnel making these comics. Which may in turn reflect the demographics of the audience reading the comics, or perhaps more importantly the demographics of the audience reading the comics 10-20 years ago. Which may in turn reflect the demographics of the characters in those comics a few decades past. That kind of lag represents a sort of systemic inertia which inhibits change. Of course, white creators can tell stories about people of color and people of all sorts read books about and identify with characters who look different than they do. It’s not about what is strictly possible, but about trends and tendencies that will persist naturally unless deliberate and concerted efforts are made in a different direction.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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