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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times