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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era