A Manhattan Project To End The Obesity Epidemic

A newly launched nonprofit organization, the Nutrition Science Initiative, will try to find an answer to the question,  “What should we eat to be healthy?” NuSI is nothing if not ambitious: its goal is to seek “the end of fad diets and high obesity rates.”

The founders of the organization, called NuSI (pronounced “new see”) for short, are Gary Taubes and Peter Attia. Taubes is the science journalist who helped launch the low-carb diet resurgence with his controversial New York Times magazine articles and subsequent books, Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat. Attia, who is the President of NuSI, trained in surgery at Johns Hopkins and the NIH before working as a consultant at McKinsey & Company.

Taubes explains the premise of NuSI:

NuSI was founded on the premise that the reason we are beset today by epidemics  of obesity and type 2 diabetes, and the reason physicians and researchers think these diseases are so recalcitrant to dietary therapies, is because of our flawed understanding of their causes. We believe that with a concerted effort and the best possible science, this problem can be fixed.

NuSI originally started as a more modest endeavor, but has now received a significant commitment of financial support from a foundation started by billionaire hedge fund manager John Arnold. The aim of the organization is, as the following NuSI publicity slide states, to “create a Manhattan Project-like effort to solve” the problem of obesity in the US:

The NuSI scientific advisory board is composed of Alan Sniderman, a lipid researcher at McGill University, David Harlan, the former head of the Diabetes, Endocrinology, & Metabolic Diseases branch of the NIDDK and now at U Mass, Mitchel Lazar, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Kevin Schulman, of Duke University.

On his Weighty Matters blog, obesity clinician and writer Yoni Freehoff offers a perspective both critical and supportive of the NuSI agenda.

Here is the press release from the Nutrition Science Initiative:

New Research Organization Could Mark the End of Fad Diets and High Obesity Rates
The Nutrition Science Initiative Seeks to Definitively Answer the Question: What Should We Eat to be Healthy?

SAN DIEGO – September 6, 2012 – In response to the skyrocketing prevalence of obesity and diabetes in the United States today and the estimated $150 billion in related healthcare expenditures, a consortium of respected clinicians and scientists from the fields of endocrinology, metabolism, diabetes, obesity, and nutrition, today launch a new nonprofit organization to finally, and with scientific certainty, answer the question: “What should we eat to be healthy?”

The Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI) is dedicated to dramatically reducing the economic and social burden of obesity and obesity-related diseases by significantly improving nutrition science. NuSI seeks to unambiguously clarify the relationship between diet and obesity and its related diseases as a result of a growing acceptance that nutrition science is – and historically has been – significantly substandard as compared to other scientific disciplines such as chemistry, biology, or physics.

“The question of the right diet has seemingly been settled in the public for years, yet obesity rates continue to rise. This contradiction begs the question: Do we really have good science to support our dietary recommendations? The answer is convincingly no,” says Kevin Schulman, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Business Administration and Director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute and the Center for Clinical and Genetic Economics at Duke University. “The largest public health crisis in the United States is being addressed with the type of data that we reject in every other field of medicine: observational studies subject to selection bias and small scale, short-term clinical studies which can’t offer definitive results.”

Born from a shared vision of its co-founders, Peter Attia, M.D. and Gary Taubes, NuSI will fund research that applies first-of-its-kind, rigorous scientific experimentation to the field of nutrition and will communicate its findings to the public and decision-makers alike in an effort to significantly improve the quality of nutritional guidance, dietary recommendations, and policies.

“Diet has profound importance for human health,” said NuSI co-founder Gary Taubes.  “NuSI will catalyze a revolution in nutrition science by challenging both the conventional wisdom that obesity is caused simply by eating too many calories and the alternative hypothesis that obesity is caused less by the actual number of calories consumed and more by the type of calories consumed. We see an effective way to address the problem, and the solution is within our reach.”

In order to conduct scientifically-sound experiments, NuSI’s oversight comes from independent researchers from varying backgrounds and divergent beliefs. The combination of skeptical experts holding opposing theories, coupled with the shared belief that nutrition science in its current state is inadequate, demands that the findings will be based on rigorous science rather than popular opinion.

“Scientific paradigm shifts occur only when standard dogmas are questioned and tested,” said David Harlan, M.D., William and Doris Krupp Professor of Medicine and Chief of the Diabetes Division at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. “NuSI is an example of a group of committed scientists, clinicians, and citizens interested in rigorously testing how dietary constituents can influence body weight, and the mechanisms underlying those effects. NuSI will play an extraordinarily important role in science, since the standard systems have become dominated by those who – consciously or subconsciously – resist studies that fall outside the accepted dogma.”

NuSI will operate entirely on funding from private citizens and other organizations. A two-year, multi-million-dollar seed funding commitment was provided by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF).

“Laura and John Arnold are passionate about reducing the social and economic burden of obesity,” said LJAF Director of Communications, Meredith Johnson. “Yet, without defensible scientific evidence, it is useless to support any public education campaign around what to eat. We are committed to supporting innovative efforts, like NuSI, that promote the rigorous science necessary to drive lasting and positive social impact.”

By facilitating reliable science to inform dietary guidelines, NuSI seeks, by the year 2025, to see a reduction in the prevalence of obesity in the United States from 35 percent to 15 percent and a reduction in the prevalence of diabetes from 8 percent to 2 percent. If successful, the resulting impact on healthcare spending in the United States could be reduced from today’s nearly 18 percent of GDP to less than 10 percent.

“NuSI is looking to concentrate all nutrition science funding efforts into one common and strategic path to resolution, rather than individual efforts that don’t build to a greater scientific understanding,” said NuSI’s President and co-founder, Peter Attia, M.D. “Without all the elements – money, time and talent – working in concert, research efforts will continue to fall short of what is necessary to solve this problem. Our greatest asset is our dedication to solving a fundamentally solvable problem using a multi-disciplinary and focused approach.  NuSI will be successful because we are bringing together the best scientific minds and giving them the time and resources they require to find the answers we all need.”

For additional information, visit www.nusi.org.

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Comments

  1. I have great respect for Gary Taubes as a science journalist, but with this initiative I see him morphing into what he has always railed against: a “true believer” motivated more by the depth of his convictions than good science. Just look at how his NuSI site frames the issue: “What if one reason Americans are getting ever fatter is because we’re actually eating what we’ve been told to eat?”

    Really? We’re getting fat because we’re eating smaller portions, making at least half of our plates fruits and vegetables, and drinking water instead of soda (some of the key recommendations of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines)? Sorry, but that premise is laughable.

    I wish Gary good luck, but I have strong doubts about a project built on such a shaky foundation.

  2. It appears that the premise of this effort is that better science and more vigorous public education are sufficient. If that were so, everyone would have stopped smoking decades ago.

    I don’t see how a project focused only on nutrition can address the aspects of the obesity epidemic that are linked to agricultural policies and food marketing, transportation, urban design, poverty, education and many other features of modern life.

    Was an understanding of nuclear physics all that the scientists involved in the original Manhattan Project needed in order to build an atomic bomb?

  3. I must unfortunately disagree with both of the above. The key recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines in word and practice is a diet based on carbohydrates and low in saturated fat. The plate half full of fruits and vegetables hardly approaches the practical message that grains are the foundation of the diet and saturated fat is bad. It’s true that there are practical issues to eating better, including the overcoming adverse effects of marketing, issues of portability and food preparation and the subsidy of corn, but these still seem secondary to getting the science right upon which all interventional ships are sent sailing. For instance, we are about to publicly subsidize gym memberships as part of health care reform. This is an implicit endorsement of the notion that weight loss is a function burning off excess calories, which is a practical impossibility. We should be focused, like a laser, as a nation, on the causes of insulin resistance.

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