Is a Virus Making You Obese? Fat Chance

By DAN CHILDS, ABC News Medical Unit

What if obesity was an insidious infection you could catch from your friends and colleagues?

Such is the scenario proposed in new research on an adenovirus known as AD-36. A team of scientists led by Nikhil Dhurandhar of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana reports that infection with the virus leads to the production of more fat cells in the body -- hence, a greater propensity toward obesity.

It’s not the first time that researchers have implicated this virus in obesity or the first time that researchers have sought an alternative explanation for the country’s current obesity epidemic. In December 2006, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis blamed the bacteria that naturally lives in the gut for a propensity toward obesity. A number of other studies have implicated genes for additional weight, while a July 2007 study suggested that social networks are actually associated with obesity -- in other words, your friends may make you fat.

And few went as far as a team of researchers at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, did in June 2006 to come up with alternate explanations for a populace that is rapidly becoming rounder. The group published a list of 10 “additional explanations” for obesity. Among the possible overlooked causes, the team says, are getting too little sleep, increased reliance on air conditioning, decreased smoking rates and increased levels of pollution.

But at the risk of digging the spurs into a tired pun, how much weight should we really give these alternative explanations?

“At some point it just doesn’t add up,” said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He notes that the lifestyle behaviors most commonly associated with obesity -- too much eating, not enough exercising -- offer a much more plausible explanation.

“I think it is the elephant in the room,” he said.

But he adds that what he feels is more problematic than these alternative explanations is Americans’ need to find something to blame for obesity -- or to take on this blame themselves.

“At some point we’ve got to give ourselves a break and not blame ourselves,” he said. “Whether a virus is or isn’t responsible for our weight gain, that’s one of those things that we can’t control.”

“But we certainly can control our daily lifestyle. ... This involves less blaming and more action, which I think is a more positive thing.”

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