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Making Primates Obese: Treat Them Like Humans

Posted Feb 21 2011 4:49pm

by Barbara Berkeley, MD

I was very disturbed today when I read of an Oregon study which is forcibly making monkeys fat.  The study , which is being conducted at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, attempts to reproduce our obesogenic western lifestyle.  In so doing, it encourages monkeys to eat as much as they want of high fat, high carbohydrate foods, and forces them to be sedentary.  The description of these primates becoming obese, diabetic and atherosclerotic while being trapped in single cages is painful.  

Animal research is undoubtedly important, but it is often difficult to defend ethically.  Most of us have made our peace with studies on mice and rats, but grow uncomfortable when the animals in question are those to which we can more closely relate.  When I was in medical school, I used to have to walk past the dog lab every day on my way to class.  One of the dogs scheduled for some experiment or other was a big shaggy thing that seemed so sweet and so doomed.  For months, I fanatasized about breaking into the lab at night and setting him free.  One day, though, his cage was empty.  The best I could do was refuse to participate in dog labs myself.  These were classes during which we learned to do surgical techniques using anesthetized pups.  The animals were later killed "humanely".

Apart from what in my opinion are the cruelties of the Oregon study, there is another more ironic corollary to be examined.   It's just odd that it seems abusive to feed primates food that purposefully makes them sick and to prevent them from  normal play and movement, when we do the same thing to ourselves and our children every day.  We laugh about it, make funny TV commercials about it, and villify anyone who suggests that we should live differently.  We immediately begin talking about our freedoms.  Yes, we vociferously defend our right to choose the very life that the Oregon monkeys are foced to live.  It is really only when we see our habits through the eyes of these monkeys that we can see how damaging, how sad, and how unneccesary they are.

But the Oregon study includes something that should give us even more pause.  Many recent lines of research have pointed to changes that occur during the fetal development of children born to overweight and obese mothers.  As a result of sacrificing some of the Oregon monkeys and looking at fetal brain tissue, researchers concluded that the future lives of offspring were impacted by what their mothers chose to eat.  We may go to the grave defending our right to choose, but do we have the right to choose for our children as well?

And take special note of this quote included in the same article: 

    "Dr. Grove and researchers at some other centers say (that) high-fructose corn syrup appears to     accelerate the development of obesity and diabetes.

    “It wasn’t until we added those carbs that we got all those other changes, including those changes in     body fat,” said Anthony G. Comuzzie, who helped create an obese baboon colony at the Southwest     National Primate Research Center in San Antonio."

Before we vilify high fructose corn syrup as a peculiarly destructive agent, please remember that HFCS has the same chemical composition as table sugar.  The only major difference is the fact that its glucose and fructose molecules are free, whereas they are bound together in sugar. The point remains, that without the addition of excess carbs it is difficult to make monkeys fat.  It's not much of a leap to believe that the same thing goes for humans as well.

In a recent post to my Facebook page at Refuse to Regain: Barbara's World, I showed two pictures of our beloved orange tabby cat, Charlie Muffin.  The first is his winter picture: fat, fat, fat.  He lazes around the house and eats from the cat food dish which is always kept full.  Our other cats remain lean, while Charley gets progressively more rotund throughout the cold weather months.  The second picture shows Charlie in his summer mode.  Out all day and eating mice.  On the "ancient diet of cats" Charley is trim and healthy, a veritable Jack LaLanne of felines. 

Perhaps one day, the Oregon studies and others of the same ilk will yield invaluable information for obesity treatment.  As of today, though, it seems that we are going a very far way to establish principles that have always been true.  We are healthy when we follow the dictates of our biology.  So are cats.  Horses.  Monkeys.  And our own children. 















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