Living off the fat of the land

Get mothers overeating during pregnancy and you stand to gain customers as soon as they are born.

Drink and snack manufacturers used to be vilified for making a profit out of making us fat. With the new Health and Social Care Act starting to bite, we can look at this differently. Because of the reincarnation of the National Health Service as a path to private profit, obesity can now be reclassified as a marvellous opportunity to kick-start the economy.

Those who are overweight and obese will help generate annual revenues of £10bn by 2050, according to Public Health England. Surely this makes it even more important that we understand the causes of obesity.

On 14 April, researchers gathered in Cambridge to go over what we know. The truth is not much. The bottom line is that obesity seems to be becoming programmed into human biology in the developed world. Profit-hungry health providers should be punching the air.

Cambridge University’s Stephen O’Rahilly, who gave the opening keynote speech at the meeting, calls obesity a “heritable neuro-behavioural disorder” that is “highly sensitive to environmental conditions”. As much as 70 per cent of the difference between individual levels of fatness can be attributed to heritable factors but the rapid rise in obesity and diabetes over the past couple of decades shows that it’s not all genetic. There are ways to make people fulfil their potential for fatness.

Much of it has to do with failures in the signals between the brain and the gut – the messages that tell us when we are full and how much energy we feel we have and need. We don’t know a lot about what causes the failures but the bacteria living in your gut might be able to help. A study published in March showed how a microbe transplant can help weight loss. Transplant the microbes from the stomach of a mouse that has had a gastric bypass into the stomach of a mouse that hasn’t and the second mouse will begin to lose weight. No one knows exactly why, but some think that the mouse with the bypass has an altered gut flora and the most prevalent bacteria change the signalling from gut to brain.

Some of the metabolic failures seem to get programmed in before birth. It is becoming increasingly clear that a balanced diet is crucial to the unborn child. Research has shown that mothers who eat more fat than they should in pregnancy increase the risk of their offspring having liver and pancreas damage, heightening the chances of diabetes and early-onset obesity.

Maternal nutrition can affect the child’s mind as well as its body. Poor health and nutrition in pregnancy has been linked to anxiety, depression and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder in the child. Improved nutrition in the run-up to conception could have an enormously beneficial effect on future generations.

It’s not entirely popular, O’Rahilly concedes, to blame genetics and environmental factors for obesity: as a society, we still want to characterise the obese as lazy or lacking self-control. Research even suggests that some obese people may be suffering from a progressive neurological disorder induced by factors in their environment: the brain machinery controlling energy balance is falling apart.

Anyway, viewed from a different perspective, this programmed obesity is wonderful, guaranteeing you a client base for generations. Get mothers overeating during pregnancy and you stand to gain customers as soon as they are born. They might end up in a mental health clinic rather than the obesity clinic but a customer’s a customer, right?

Maternal nutrition can affect the child’s mind as well as its body. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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How Paul Giamatti changed the fate of Pinot Noir

The actor's prickly character in Sideways - a film about wine buffs - made us appreciate this tricky grape.

When Paul Giamatti, playing Miles in the 2004 film Sideways, started waxing lyrical about Pinot Noir, he changed his own fate and, surprisingly, that of the grape. It is hard to know which was more unlikely: the sexual interest of the beautiful, wine-loving Maya (Virginia Madsen) in this thin-skinned, temperamental loser, or the world’s heightened interest in this thin-skinned, temperamental grape.

“Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression,” Miles growled and, kapow: those patient winemakers suddenly found a bunch of film buffs queuing for their wine. Perhaps it was the character’s description of its flavours as “just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle . . . on the planet”. Perhaps it was the power of celebrity approval.

In fact, the correlation between finicky Miles and finicky Pinot is even closer than the script claims. Miles in California wine country doesn’t behave exactly like Miles back home in San Diego, and that is true of Pinot Noir, too. Everybody marvels at the tiny difference between one Burgundy vineyard and the next: how Pommard’s red wines have such power while those of Volnay next door have more elegance; how a wine such as Armand Rousseau’s Premier Cru Clos St Jacques – so good as to be almost indescribable – can differ in quality from surrounding Gevrey-Chambertins, which aren’t exactly shoddy either.

Perhaps the Sideways audience understood that no two of us are alike. Miles was talking about vulnerability, and the need to feel unique and uniquely cared for. No wonder Maya melted.

Given its variability and responsiveness, the best way to explore Pinot is to try several. So, I lined up bottles and drinkers from three continents and took a world tour without leaving the dinner table.

It seemed unfair to include a great Burgundy name, so I began with David Moreau’s Maranges 2014 from the southernmost part of the Côte d’Or. It had clean, redcurranty flavours but felt too young – trying to taste the terroir was like asking a lost toddler for their address. Still, when we moved on to a purplish Pinot from Bulgaria, a country still suffering the loss of the vast and uncritical Soviet market, the Maranges improved by comparison. We fled to America, where Oregon Pinots, particularly from the Willamette Valley, are much praised and steeply priced. Lemelson Vineyards’ “Thea’s Selection” 2013 was rich but lacked depth; I preferred the wild berries and marzipan of Elizabeth’s Reserve 2012 from Adelsheim Vineyard.

The difference between the two, just six miles apart, was their most interesting aspect, so we assembled another pair of neighbours: Ocean Eight 2012 and Paringa Estate 2013, both from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, separated by a year and four zigzagging miles.

These are beautiful wines, the former full of blackberry, the latter spectacular, perfectly structured and with a scent to dab behind your ears. And here is the paradox of Pinot, which tastes of where it’s grown but is grown everywhere that stubborn individuals can persuade it to fruit.

The Mornington Peninsula is planted with Pinot because its patient winemakers claim their climate is similar to Burgundy’s – which would be hilarious if it weren’t, like Miles’s grandstanding, rather plaintive. This is a spit of land with water on three sides, ten thousand miles from France, as much like the landlocked Côte d’Or as I am like Virginia Madsen, which is to say that there are basic structural similarities but you’ll never mistake one for the other.

Ambition and imagination are qualities we don’t share with the vine – but plant those attributes in the right soil and the results can be delicious.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit