Professor Joe Proietto in a scene from The Obesity Myth.
Professor Joe Proietto in a scene from The Obesity Myth. TIMOTHY SCOTT HERBERT

Getting to the root of obesity

A NEW documentary series on SBS is changing the way we view obesity. The Obesity Myth follows the doctors and patients of Austin Health, a weight-loss clinic in Victoria specialising in the treatment of the morbidly obese.

Headed by Professor Joe Proietto, the clinic treats obesity as a chronic condition using a combination of a strict diet, medication and, if necessary, surgery.

"I'm hoping the general public will realise that they need to be understanding of these people rather than abusing them," Prof Proietto tells Weekend.

"At the moment obesity is the only condition that society seems to be allowed to abuse. There are all sorts of terrible complications and I'm hoping the public will be supportive of further resources for the treatment of obesity."

Prof Proietto is one of the world's leading experts in obesity and believes genes play a major part in the epidemic.

Five key genes have so far been identified and when combined with readily accessible fast food and a lifestyle lacking in exercise, it's the perfect storm for weight gain.

"It seems to be self-evident the reason people are obese is that they overeat," he says.

"But people don't go beyond that. They don't ask the question, 'Why are they overeating?'

"It's because of their genetic make-up. The five genes identified that lead to severe obesity, which are rare, lead to an increased hunger and drive to eat.

"The perception of the community that you're simply lazy is wrong. In fact, you can't get obese unless you have a gene malfunction."

Don't believe him? There are some interesting studies that prove his point. One Canadian study involves a dozen sets of identical twins.

"They overfed 12 pairs of identical twins for 100 days and the twins tracked together," he says.

Another study in the US found people fed the same amount of food varied widely on how much weight, if any, they put on.

"They force-fed people in a clinical research unit - some put on weight and some didn't," he says.

"Why? Those who didn't (gain weight) were able to increase their spontaneous activity and they burnt it off automatically."

The Obesity Myth airs Mondays at 7.30pm on SBS.