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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism