A broader view of obesity

scary facts about obesity

Obesity research has traditionally focused on finding a single explanation and solution. One gene or one miracle diet or pill. A team of experts at Johns Hopkins University introduce a different perspective on obesity research with the online course Systems science and obesity.


System science is a study of complex systems in society. It looks at the mass influences, or characteristics of the entire society not just factors affecting the individual.


The Systems science and obesity lecture-based online course is presented by lecturers from diverse academic disciplines: civil engineering, epidemiology, nutrition, medicine and public health. One is introduced to systems modelling through interactive examples which are great to experiment with.

The Systems science and obesity course covers numerous factors and issues surrounding the causes of obesity:

  • genetics
  • epigenetic factors – gene expression is influenced by maternal or paternal weight status
  • human biology and the thrifty gene hypothesis
  • human food seeking behaviour
  • snacking and chronic overeating
  • food industry marketing and food science – to maximise purchase and consumption
  • food supply/availability
  • socio-economic factors and relative cost of heathy and unhealthy food
  • fast food outlets – availability and clustering
  • bigger portion size
  • role of macronutrients – effect of carbohydrates and sweetened syrup in beverages
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • peers and the obesity contagion

The course highlights some novel solutions to the obesity epidemic. These population based interventions, such as a “sugar tax” and school-based peer programs, are focused on obesity prevention rather than cure.

“A moment on the lips, forever on the hips”

There may be some truth in the saying. While most dieters can achieve five to ten percent sustained weight loss, the majority of people who lose large amounts of weight, regain it completely within a few years. A permanent transition from obese to a healthy weight is unusual.

Lets face it – putting on weight is easy and losing weight is tough. It seems that prevention like many public health initiatives, is better than cure.

Obesity has reached mammoth proportions globally and locally. The WHO 2014 statistics gave us the scary fact that one in four adults in South African are obese. Our best chance of finding a solution is understanding what is behind the obesity epidemic.

If the team at Johns Hopkins are to be believed, a systems science approach offers the most promising future for research into the obesity epidemic. Take a look at the course if you are ready for a few hours of startling facts about the obesity epidemic.

Reading list:

1 System Science an obesity by coursera

2 OBESITY: OVERVIEW OF AN EPIDEMIC Nia Mitchell, MD, Vicki Catenacci, MD, Holly R. Wyatt, MD, and James O. Hill, PhD Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2011 Dec; 34(4): 717–732.doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2011.08.005

3 Obesity and Bariatric Surgery Drive Epigenetic Variation of Spermatozoa in Humans. Donkin I1, Versteyhe S1, Ingerslev LR1, Qian K1, Mechta M1, Nordkap L2, Mortensen B3, Appel EV1, Jørgensen N2, Kristiansen VB4, Hansen T1, Workman CT5, Zierath JR6, Barrès R7.Cell Metab. 2016 Feb 9;23(2):369-78. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2015.11.004. Epub 2015 Dec 6.

4 Large maternal weight loss from obesity surgery prevents transmission of obesity to children who were followed for 2 to 18 years.

Kral JG1, Biron S, Simard S, Hould FS, Lebel S, Marceau S, Marceau P. Pediatrics. 2006 Dec;118(6):e1644-9.

5 Ten Putative Contributors to the Obesity Epidemic Emily J. McAllister,1 Nikhil V. Dhurandhar,1 Scott W. Keith,2 Louis J. Aronne,3 Jamie Barger,4,5 Monica Baskin,6 Ruth M. Benca,7 Joseph Biggio,8 Mary M. Boggiano,9 Joe C. Eisenmann,10 Mai Elobeid,2 Kevin R. Fontaine,11 Peter Gluckman,12 Erin C. Hanlon,13 Peter Katzmarzyk,14 Angelo Pietrobelli,15 David T. Redden,2 Douglas M. Ruden,16 Chenxi Wang,17 Robert A. Waterland,18 Suzanne M. Wright,3 and David B. Allison2 Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2009 Nov; 49(10): 868–913.

doi: 10.1080/10408390903372599 PMCID: PMC2932668NIHMSID: NIHMS225558

6 Neighborhoods and Obesity in Older Adults: The Baltimore Memory Study Thomas A Glass, PhD,1 Meghan D. Rasmussen, MPA,2 and Brian S. Schwartz, MD, MS3 Am J Prev Med.Am J Prev Med. 2006 Dec; 31(6): 455–463. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2006.07.028 PMCID: PMC1851911 NIHMSID: NIHMS15142

8 Bottomless bowls: why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Wansink B1, Painter JE, North J. Obes Res. 2005 Jan;13(1):93-100.

9 Energy Balance and Obesity James O. Hill, Ph.D., Holly R. Wyatt, M.D., and John C. Peters, Ph.D. Circulation. 2012 Jul 3; 126(1): 126–132.

10 Influence of Peers and Friends on Children’s and Adolescents’ Eating and Activity Behaviors Sarah-Jeanne Salvy, Kayla de la Haye, Julie C. Bowker, and Roel C.J. Hermans Physiol Behav. 2012 Jun 6; 106(3): 369–378.