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Diane Mufson: Med school tackles obesity concerns head-on

Oct. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Those who believe that Americans in general and West Virginians in particular do not have a problem with obesity are naive. Huntington has become more aware of this issue since we achieved the undistinguished ranking of "fattest city in the nation" a few years ago.

It is one thing to just talk about the problem and another thing to try and make constructive changes. To that end, the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine held an "Inaugural Childhood Obesity Conference" in Huntington earlier this month.

It was a day of enlightening presentations that were open to the public and showed that this weighty problem requires scientific knowledge and pragmatic planning to effect needed changes.

The morning program included professionals from the West Virginia medical community, while featured speaker, Jeffrey M. Friedman, M.D., Ph.D., from the Rockefeller University in New York, provided a fascinating look at the effect of genetics on obesity.

Noting that our country is "about 4 billion pounds overweight" (a truly mind-boggling figure), Dr. Friedman described his eight-year quest to find the gene that produced the hormone that was missing in overly obese rats. He named this substance, leptin, from the Greek word thin.

He discovered that both mice and humans would keep eating without adequate supplies of this hormone. Approximately 15 percent of individuals have this genetic defect, making it impossible for them to lose weight unless given this substance.

Now before everyone who needs to lose weight decides that they are leptin deficient, we should consider other aspects of weight control. My best personal learning experience regarding weight occurred during my college freshman year. Many of you have heard of the "freshman 15," the typical amount female students gain during their first year away at a university. I did much better than that.

Despite walking four miles daily between my dorm and main campus, I managed a 45-pound weight gain.

This did not occur because I suddenly became leptin deficient nor developed any other hormonal condition. Rather, it was a result of midnight pizzas, daily outings to the "Ag School Dairy Bar," which made the richest and tastiest ice cream I'd ever eaten, and consuming many other high caloric foods. Today, our nation appears to have developed the "traditional freshman diet."

In the afternoon session of the Obesity Conference, we heard from a dozen individuals representing medicine, the state legislature and community programs. There was unanimous agreement that to do nothing about childhood obesity is not an option.

One of my favorite suggestions came from pharmacist, Don C. Perdue, R. Ph., who is chair of the Committee on Health and Human Resources of the West Virginia House of Delegates. He has advocated legislation to publicly display calories of foods served in restaurants. He noted that his proposal prompted opponents of this measure to bring servings of fast food to the legislators as they soundly rejected this option.

Another speaker predicted that 60 percent of West Virginians will be obese in less than two decades. We cannot afford the resultant health and social costs of that scenario.

Thanks to Marshall's Medical School Dean Dr. Joe Shapiro for arranging this superb conference and also for making all the significant changes at the Medical School this past year so that the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine is no longer on probation. Hopefully, the Medical School will make the Childhood Obesity Conference an annual event and continue to help our community solve our obesity problems.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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