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UCL events news and reviews



By ucft509, on 10 June 2011

I’ll cut to the main point: none of us are very good at really controlling what we eat. Some people are lucky in that this doesn’t make them fat; for others this leads to weight gain and difficulty in then losing that mass.

This seemed to be a repeated theme in the talk. For some people, the idea that willpower is not some kind of superior moral quality but that how much we need to eat is encoded in the brain would have made them feel better, but for some it would have made them feel rather helpless.

The first speaker, a Cambridge clinical endocrinologist, made the statement that genetics explains 40-70% of variance in body mass. Not to say that everything about one’s weight is predetermined, but she made a case for biological explanation.

Unfortunately I missed the first minute of Imperial endocrinologist Kevin Murphy’s talk as I was captivated by a picture of a cupcake in one corner of his introductory slide. When I snapped out of sugar-fantasy-land, I saw that he was talking about how hormones in the gut are released when food comes in. The ‘purpose’ of these hormones is to get us to reduce our subsequent food intake. But it was pointed out that for some people this happens as they are eating, but for others there is a delay and they eat more than they ‘should have’.

UCL psychologist Jane Wardle asserted that hunger is evolution’s trick to make sure we don’t go short of food. A Foresight report contributed to by Jane showed that the body has many mechanisms to regulate our weight, and tricking ourselves to get around this is difficult unless we simultaneously remove multiple control mechanisms.

To be honest I think that whether we can control what we eat or not, many people feel some kind of ‘guilt’ towards themselves and their food habits, and I don’t think it’s justified. A common theme this week is that society only accepts certain ways of being. I think science can help change this, since it provides a genetic argument that it’s difficult to change what we weigh. We’re literally ‘made’ like that, and should be valued for who we are.

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