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Getting a Handle on Obesity
Once a problem only in the developed world, obesity is now a worldwide
epidemic. The overwhelming cause of the epidemic is a dramatic increase in the
food supply and in food consumption—not a surprise. Yet there are still many
mysteries about weight change that can’t be answered either inside the lab,
because of the impracticality of keeping people isolated for long periods of time,
or outside, because of the unreliability of dietary diaries. Mathematical models
based on differential equations can help overcome this roadblock and allow
detailed analysis of the relationship between food intake, metabolism, and weight
change. The models’ predictions fit existing data and explain such things as why it
is hard to keep weight off and why obese people are more susceptible to further
weight gain.
Researchers are also investigating why dieters often plateau after a few months
and slowly regain weight. A possible explanation is that metabolism slows to
match the drop in food consumed, but models representing food intake and
energy expenditure as a dynamical system show that such a weight plateau
doesn’t take effect until much later. The likely culprit is a combination of slower
metabolism and a lack of adherence to the diet. Most people are in approximate
steady state, so that longterm changes are necessary
to gain or lose weight.
The good news is that
each (enduring) drop of 10
calories a day translates
into one pound of weight
loss over three years, with
about half the loss occurring in the first year.
Photo: Ryan McVay
For More Information:
“Quantification of the
effect of energy imbalance
on bodyweight,” Hall et al.
Lancet, Vol. 378 (2011), pp.
The Mathematical Moments program promotes
appreciation and understanding of the role mathematics
plays in science, nature, technology, and human culture.
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