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The Obesity Virus: Convenient Crutch or Deadly Disease?

The Obesity Virus: Convenient Crutch or Deadly Disease?


Despite all the recent media hype, the obesity virus is hardly a new concept. The theory that obesity is caused by a virus has been discussed in academic literature during the last two decades, and studies have detected a link between both animal and human viruses and obesity. However, the notion that a virus is a cause – or even the sole cause – of obesity remains widely contested.

The Culprit - AD 36

Of all the viruses suspected of causing obesity in humans, the one most recently placed in the spotlight is adenovirus 36, or AD 36.

Professors Richard Atkinson and Nikhil Dhurandhar conducted a study at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in which mice and chickens were infected with AD 36. After a few months, the animals infected with the virus weighed 7 percent more than those in the control group. The infected animals also had fat levels that were twice as high as the control group.

Following the study, Atkinson founded Obetech, a company that tests individuals for the presence of AD 36. Researchers for the company conducted a study of more than 500 people and found that 30 percent of obese individuals tested positive for AD 36 while only 10 percent of non-obese individuals tested positive for the infection.

But how can AD 36 cause obesity in people? Atkinson's original collaborator Dhurandhar has continued to study AD 36, and presented his most recent findings on the virus and its link to obesity at a medical conference in August 2007.

Dhurandhar and his team found that adult stem cells exposed to AD 36 transitioned into fat cells. Further, the virus-infected cells were capable of holding more fat than normal fat cells, according to the research team. Adult stem cells not exposed to the virus remained unchanged.

While there is evidence of a correlation between AD 36 and an increase in fat cells, we already know that diet and exercise are the most important factors to consider when it comes to weight. Do these recent findings mean we should toss everything we've learned about healthy eating and fitness out the door?

Question Everything

Atkinson, Dhurandhar, and the members of the AD 36 research teams do not make any claims that AD 36 is the main, or only, cause of obesity. But they do have an interest in raising awareness of the virus, linking it to obesity, and urging people to be tested for its presence through Atkinson's company.

For the moment, let's give the AD 36 researchers the benefit of the doubt and assume the virus is a cause of obesity. If it is, is it a major cause? Is it more of a cause for concern than, say, the eating habits of Americans?

Could a Virus Be the Major Cause of Obesity in America?

A quick look at the world around us makes it seem unlikely that a virus is the main cause of the substantial increase of obesity in Americans during the past two decades. The obesity epidemic is mostly confined to America. In other parts of the world, people are dying of hunger and malnutrition. If a virus were the major of cause of obesity, we'd likely be facing a worldwide pandemic.

On the other hand, we could examine the changes in diet and exercise habits of Americans during this period. Since the 1970s, our portion sizes have gotten bigger, there has been an increase in the number of fast food restaurants, and many Americans have adopted more sedentary lifestyles.

And according to medical experts who have read the studies on AD 36, the virus would likely be responsible for just a small percentage of obesity in Americans.

The rise of obesity in adult Americans, according to CDC statistics

So it's probably not a good idea for Americans to lose focus on what we really need – for example, eating more vegetables, saying no to fried food, running a dozen miles each week – and blame our problems on something that hasn't been confirmed.

Don't Play the Blame Game

While it's plausible that a virus could explain some cases of obesity, it doesn't mean downing a pan of brownies with a tub of ice cream isn't going to have an effect on your weight. The bottom line is that if you eat substantially more calories than you burn, it is likely that you will gain weight.

Even if you do test positive for AD 36, Obetech's advice is to see your physician to start a weight-loss program. And whether or not obesity is caused by genes, environmental factors, eating habits, age, or a virus, the best weight-loss solution is still a combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise.

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