Obesity is Contagious? Research Finds Link to Virus

Kelly Lawyer
By Kelly Lawyer | June 3, 2014 | 10:51 AM EDT

Is obesity contagious?  Is the cause of the growing epidemic a common cold? That's the finding presented by researchers this week.

These scientists are now saying an airborne virus is a cause for the growing rate of obesity.  Researchers addressed the European Congress on Obesity in Sofia, Bulgaria, this past week pointing out that the rise of obesity over the past 30 years has coincided with the discovery of a bug, adenovirus 36.

Highly infectious, it can cause mild coughs and colds.  Further, an August 2000 study, published in The International Journal of Obesity, tested the virus theory on chickens and mice and concluded, "Data from these animal models suggest that the role of viral disease in the etiology of human obesity must be considered."  Further, a study five years later, performed a similar study on humans and found, "Human adenovirus-36 is associated with increased body weight and paradoxical reduction of serum lipids."

Additionally, in 2010, the Journal of Pediatrics, reported that obese children carrying the virus were an average of 35 pounds heavier than other obese children. And, children, regardless of weight, who carried the virus were an average of 52 lbs. heavier than children who tested negative for the virus.  Further, Jeffrey Schwimmer, associate professor at UC, San Diego, Director of the Weight and Wellness Center, a multi-disciplinary program for the evaluation and treatment obesity at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego, stated that the obesity epidemic cannot be reduced to simply a problem with eating or lack of exercise, but that there is more to the problem than meets the eye.

Dr. Richard Atkinson, a long time researcher regarding various aspects of obesity, believes the virus continues to increase weight gain for decades after a person contracts the disease.  He remarked, "I think there is a very good likelihood that a significant proportion of the obesity epidemic is due to this virus. Potentially, it affects weight for more than 20 years. And worse than that, once you are fat, you are probably stuck, because once you have made all those new fat cells, they don't just go away."

Despite the conviction of several obesity specialists, others are not so convinced.  The New York Times reported in 2011, "many environmental forces, from economic interests of the food and beverage industries to the way our cities and towns are built, have conspired to subvert the body's natural ability to match calories in with calories out."  Later in 2014, they reported the causes for obesity are: excessive caloric intake, thyroid disorders, and lack of physical activity.  Additionally, the Harvard School of Public Health, writes obesity's causes are many including: genes, though the effect is small; prenatal and early life influences; poor diets; too much television watching; too little physical activity and sleep; and food and physical activity environment.

Moreover, the University of Maryland Medical Center states the causes of obesity are diet, lack of exercise, genetics, age, psychological issues, certain medications, medical problems (which are extremely rare and caused by Cushing Syndrome), and prenatal environmental factors-mentioning nothing about the effects of a virus.