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Alan Levine

U researcher Allen Levine says "biology, psychology, society, the government...they all play a role" in causing obesity.

A growing health threat

David Kessler and Allen Levine open the 2007 Great Conversations with "The Obesity Epidemic"

By Megan Rocker

Feb. 16, 2007

Imagine an epidemic that kills more than 300,000 Americans a year. A disease that affects more than 65 percent of the population, and whose incidence among children has tripled in the last three decades. One in which the health-related complications are greater than those of poverty, smoking and alcoholism, and indirect costs include everything from rising insurance rates and lost hours in the workplace to a bump in airfare prices.

It isn't cancer, or HIV; it's obesity. And it's a problem that is so multifaceted, with so many contributing factors, that some people have likened it to the crisis in the Middle East in terms of complexity of causes and possible solutions.

"The issue of obesity in our society is one of tremendous complexity," says Allen Levine, head of the Minnesota Obesity Center. "There is a network of complicated forces interacting, and it's difficult to say any one of them is the root 'cause.' Biology, psychology, society, the government...they all play a role. It isn't as simple as 'nature or nurture.'"

Levine will attempt to shed some light on some of these factors when he takes the stage on Feb. 20, along with former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler for the first installment of the 2007 Great Conversations series, sponsored by the College of Continuing Education (see sidebar). Kessler and Levine will discuss some of the societal and biological factors involved with the epidemic.

Levine, also dean of the University's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), studies how areas of the brain and certain neuropeptides play a role in obesity and overeating. "I look at obesity and eating from an angle that many people might not think about--eating for pleasure and reward, and how that might overlap with other kinds of 'reward systems' that can become problematic, such as gambling or drug or alcohol abuse," he says.

Humans eat for pleasure, Levine adds. Historically, certain foods were considered a "treat" or a true reward. We ate them and we felt good. The current problem is that we now live in a society that makes those "treats" commonplace and readily available. Food has become an "acceptable reward," and may result in a type of dependence.

David Kessler
David Kessler, former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner, will visit the U's Twin Cities campus on Feb. 20. --Photo by Majed

"In a public forum," says Levine, "you're not going to be drinking or injecting yourself with drugs or having sex at work. You can't smoke at your desk. So what are you going to do to reward yourself? Well, you can have a doughnut. Society isn't going to slap your hand if you eat at your desk. It's a reward, a 'feel good' thing, but it's allowable."

Of course, says Levine, while neurobehavior plays a role, it alone isn't responsible for the dramatic increase in overweight individuals.

"It's an intersection of many factors," he explains. "Clearly, biology is driving people to eat a certain way, their impulse control is not stopping them and the environment is enabling them. It's akin to intelligence and knowledge in a taking someone who is very, very bright and putting them in a resource-poor environment versus in one in which there are many opportunities for learning. Obviously, they will be more informed and advanced if they're in the environment that educated them well."

Great Conversations 2007

Feb. 20: Allen Levine and David Kessler on the obesity epidemic.

March 27: Robert Elde and Larry Rosenstock on innovations in education.

April 24: Kathryn Sikkink and Juan E. Mendez on international human rights.

May 8: Donna Gabaccia and Ruben Martinez on global immigration issues.

June 5: Richard Leider and Richard Bolles on the purposeful life.

All events take place at 7:30 p.m. at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the Twin Cities campus. Series tickets are $115 and single tickets are $28.50 ($95 and $23.50 respectively for U faculty, staff, students and alumni). For more information, call 612-624-2345 or visit the U's Arts Ticketing Office.

In addition, the food industry responds to supply and demand, Levine says.

"When the craze was 'fat-free,' suddenly multitudes of nonfat products appeared on shelves," he says. And of course, to make something light or low-fat, you have to increase the sugar to make it taste good. Plus, it's cheaper for the restaurants to give you more food. Think about it--what does it cost for them to add extra beef to your burger? A buck? But how many more customers will they draw in if their burgers are bigger and juicier than the place down the street?"

And with the rise of convenience foods and the prominence of chains such as McDonald's, comes fatter families because "it's time-consuming and expensive to feed a family healthy foods. High calorie foods are cheap. Sugar and fat mixed together (cake frosting) is not expensive. But look at the price of fresh fruits and vegetables, at a head of lettuce. On a per calorie basis, it's a lot more expensive to eat salad than it is to eat cake." A family with two parents each working 40-plus hours a week, struggling to make ends meet, is much more likely to rely on fast food and prepackaged food, Levine says, because it's "quick, cheap, and easy."

The problem is pervasive and contributing factors can be found in just about every facet of our society--from politics to business and industry, and from education to marketing. Is there a solution in our lifetime? Has the obesity epidemic peaked or will its ramifications continue to snowball? Find out at this first 2007 Great Conversations event.

To learn more about Great Conversations, or to download audio files from previous programs, visit To buy tickets to the conversation between Levine and Kessler, or other events in the series, visit the U's Arts Ticketing Office.