Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Skinny on Getting Skinny

For those of us who are constantly struggling with our weight, there’s been some encouraging news lately. One piece is straightforward and for women only. Another is a complicated study with implications for everyone.

An onerous standard that I had been eying was that a woman’s waist should measure no more than half her height. I’m so short that this meant I should have about a 30” waist. What’s more, I’m at that point in life where I’ve started shrinking. So my ideal waist measurement has become a moving target. It’s a bit like the age for collecting full Social Security. By the time the younger boomers reach the age it is today, the bar will have been moved farther down the horizon.

The good news is that a recent health segment on morning TV noted that a woman’s waist should be no more than 35”. I still have a distance to go to see that number, but every month I’m inching closer.

The study that addressed weight was interesting in the abstract and exciting in its potential for those of us who can pinch way more than an inch. It came on my radar through a report by Gina Kolata in the New York Times.

In the shortest, simplest laymen’s terms, researchers put poop from a fat twin into the gut of one mouse and poop from a thin twin into another mouse. Fat-twin poop led to chubby mice; thin-twin poop yielded skinny mice. The report gave far more information and in more scientific terms, but I wanted to get your attention before I put you to sleep.

The Times article began with a premise that I found questionable. Is there really a “growing fascination with gut bacteria”? I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit around wondering what type of microbes are down there and how they might be spending their time. True, we hear a lot about irritable bowel syndrome on TV. But Facebook is more subject to what we used to call “diarrhea of the mouth.”

Let’s accept the Times premise and move on to the methodology. The researchers found sets of twins where one was fat and the other was thin (apparently a rarity). The study write-up in Science magazine tells us they transplanted “uncultured fecal microbiota” from each and gave it to twin mice raised in a sterile environment (meaning no gut bacteria of their own). They were fed a diet of low-fat mouse food.

In five weeks, the mice gifted with fat feces had 15% to 17% more body fat than the ones who got skinny gut gifts. The next phase of the research involved “cohousing coprophagic mice.” I looked up “coprophagic” in my Webster’s unabridged. It means they eat one another’s droppings. The outcome, surprisingly, was that skinny droppings helped the chubby mice lose weight, but fat scat had no effect on the thin mice. (So much for the recent theory that your fat friends will make you fatter.)

In what may be the understatement of the day, a nationally-renowned program director said: “This is all weird and wonderful.” Close behind in the “you-don’t-say” department was the senior investigator’s hope that “people can be given pure mixtures of bacteria instead of feces.” Ya think?

For those out there who feel that a “fecal transplant” might be worth it, I need to share one additional detail. The study was extended with an overlay of diets that were either low in fat or high in fat, with both types of mice co-habiting. In this phase of the research, the mice with the fat gut donations did not benefit from eating the thin mouse droppings. Conclusion (from the report in Science): “Invasion and phenotypic rescue were diet-dependent.”

Simply put, if you don’t eat a low-fat diet, the skinny scat won’t help. Nobody said it would be easy.

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