Food for thought

By Fran Molloy

Globally, obesity is shaping up to be one of humanity’s greatest health challenges – and Australia is a world player in this unseemly contest, with more than 60 per cent of adults and one in four children classified as either overweight or obese.

Through the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise, the University is co-ordinating a broad team of scientists to spearhead basic, clinical, public health and health policy research on this serious health issue. Research across various disciplines is bringing an astonishingly broad perspective to the Centre’s main focus areas.

Image of cake

Food for thought

“We cross many aspects of obesity, and in particular, nutrition and activity and we’ve attracted a number of interest groups,” Professor Ian Caterson says. Caterson is the Director of the Institute and holds the Boden Chair of Human Nutrition, which was established in 1976 through an endowment by Dr Alexander Boden, a scientist and graduate of the University and who, until recently, was the University’s largest single donor. A joint initiative of the Faculties of Health Sciences, Medicine and Science, the Boden Institute was named in recognition of Dr Boden’s philanthropy and his vision in recognising nutrition as a key factor in understanding many chronic diseases.

Boden’s donation followed a discussion with the US-based two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, who told Boden that research on human nutrition was the most important research to be done in the world and could prevent much human suffering. Boden hoped that increased research into human nutrition – in particular, the problems of over-nutrition in developed countries – could potentially resolve conditions such as coronary artery disease, obesity and diabetes. The cross-faculty Boden Institute is currently hosted in the Medical Foundation building.

“We cross many aspects of obesity, and in particular, nutrition and activity and we’ve attracted a number of interest groups,” Caterson says. “Professor Len Storlien is our Director of Obesity and Basic Research and he is leading a group that’s looking into the microbiome, that is, the environment of the bacteria that live in our digestive systems and the effect on those of eating high-fat foods, such as inflammation in fat cells, which can lead to heart disease.”

Another research team is looking into the foetal origins of adult disease, and how maternal nutrition and in-utero behaviour affect later life. There’s already a link between small birth size and metabolic disease and between big birth size and obesity.
Associate Professor Gareth Denyer, from the Faculty of Science, is a biochemist who is working on the way that cells in different tissues react when a person’s diet changes to one with a lower glycaemic index.

Meanwhile another biochemist, Dr Kim Bell-Anderson from the Human Nutrition Unit in the School of Molecular Bioscience, is working with “fat mice,” looking at the issue of insulin resistance that starts to occur following weight gain. Human research associated with the Boden Centre includes research with Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, from the Faculty of Science, who is working on glycaemic index studies.

Caterson is also working with Professor Steve Simpson, who has developed a fascinating theoretical framework for nutrition based on observations of the Mormon Cricket, an American species of flightless crickets, that march in huge swarms, partly in a quest to find protein, and partly to out-pace their cannibalistic fellows. Simpson discovered that the crickets stop swarming when protein-satiated and that a dominant protein appetite exists across many species, including humans. His theory suggests that eating high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods may lead to over-eating in order to get enough protein.

“In normal weight individuals, we’ve shown that there is a relationship between high protein and eating less. We are now looking at whether overweight or obese people respond in the same way,” Simpson says.

One of the most popular recent clinical trials examined the impact on gut bacteria of the Korean diet, with volunteers across the University vying to partake in the study, where recruits ate twelve Korean meals each week, provided by the research team.
Professor Adrian Bauman at the School of Public Health has been investigating ways of reducing sedentary behaviours – such as working at a “standing” desk rather than sitting. Another study, which covers the UK, Germany and Australia, involves a two-year follow-up measuring the effectiveness of GP-supervised weight loss compared to Weight Watchers. A study of short, high-intensity exercise regimes aims to improve fitness in 25-35 year olds, and the Centre is also looking into developing a national database of obesity-related surgery outcomes.

“With the opening of the centre for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which will happen in around 2013, we will be part of a much broader group, with even more opportunities for cross-fertilisation and collaboration,” Caterson says.