Disarm the Harm

Science, technology, and life.
March 5 2010 8:08 AM

Disarm the Harm

The original idea for controlling fat was austerity: Eat less and exercise more. But people had trouble exercising self-control . So we bypassed self-control by developing bariatric surgery, which prevents you from eating too much. We've even begun to invent ways to eat without absorbing the food . Three years ago, I called this idea girth control : Just as you can have sex without pregnancy, maybe you can have food without fat.

But what if you still get fat? Now there's a new strategy: By figuring out how fat causes health problems, scientists hope to thwart that process, so that being fat might become less harmful . If we can't stop you from eating, and if we can't break the link between eating and getting fat, maybe we can break the link between fat and its health consequences.

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Would fat then lose its stigma? Or would we still treat it as a moral failing ? Many people condemn promiscuity even when it doesn't lead to disease or pregnancy. Would they condemn fat without harm?

A similar trend is underway against tobacco addiction. This week, President Obama's doctor examined him and advised him to "continue smoking cessation efforts" using " nicotine replacement therapy ." Obama, a man with plenty of demonstrated willpower, is still having trouble kicking the nicotine habit. So instead of demanding that he go cold turkey, his doctor is endorsing technology that enables the president to indulge his addiction without incurring its traditional health damage. In the case of smoking, as in the case of overeating, scientists are developing ways to separate the habit from the harm .

I'll keep you posted on trends like these as they emerge from the news. To catch them in real time, subscribe to the Human Nature Twitter feed , which is where these updates, in short form, first appeared.

 

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.