Animal obesity: canary in the coal mine?

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There are a number of factors, both behavioural and environmental, which are thought to play important roles in the current epidemic of obesity.  These range from things like increased soft-drink consumption and decreased physical activity, which are at least nominally under our personal control, to more external factors like viruses, light pollution, and environmental contaminants, over which we have little or no control.  How much of a role do these external factors play in the obesity epidemic?  No one knows.  But if these external factors are playing a role in the human obesity epidemic, then we would also expect to see similar increases in body weight and obesity rates among animals who live with or near humans, since they would be exposed to many of these same factors.  To this end, a fascinating new paper by Yann Klimentidis and colleagues examines the body weight and risk of obesity in 8 different species, and the results suggest that external factors may be playing a larger role in obesity rates that previously thought.  From the paper:

Model organisms have potential value as ‘canaries in the coalmines’ or ‘sentinels’ informing us about environmental factors potentially impacting humans [8]. In this light, we compiled data to assess time trends in body weight in mammalian species that live with or around humans in industrialized societies. Such observations might help identify environmental influences that might otherwise go undetected.

From 24 distinct populations (12 subdivided into separate male and female populations), representing eight species, over 20000 animals were studied. Time trends for mean per cent weight change and the odds of obesity were tested for the samples from each population at an age period that corresponded roughly to early-middle adulthood (35 years) in human development.

So, what did they find?  Out of 24 different animal populations ranging from rodents (both feral and domestic) to several monkey species, every single population showed trends for increasing body weight, a result which is exceedingly unlikely to be due to chance (e.g. p=0.00000012). In general most animal populations, whether they live in the lab or roam our streets, have seen their average body weight increase by 5-10% per decade, although lab animals did tend to gain more than their free-living peers.  The clear losers of this survey are chimpanzees, which have seen more than 30% increase in body weight per decade, which is pretty astonishing.

As the authors point out in their discussion, these animal populations have all gained significant amounts of body weight in recent decades, despite little change to their diet or physical activity levels (for those in lab-controlled conditions, at least).  There are some arguments that feral animals may be under selective pressure to increase in size, and that both feral and domestic animals may have more food available due increasing amounts of food waste in our cities.  But when the authors looked at weight gain in non-lab (feral or domestic) vs lab animals, the non-lab animals actually gained less weight, not more.  In other words, animals populations living in the most strictly controlled conditions were the same ones who saw the greatest increase in body weight in recent years.  The authors also note that there may have been improvements in the housing conditions of lab animals in recent decades, but again it is interesting that the body weight of every single animal population in this study increased over time, despite wildly different living conditions, with no one factor able to explain the increases in these disparate groups.


Assuming that the issues discussed above are unlikely to account for all of the increase in body weight in these animal populations, what options are we left with? All sorts of things!  Everything from the AD36 virus, to endocrine distrupting chemicals, to light pollution and climate change.  Seriously.  There is an excellent paper on all of these putative “non-traditional” causes of the obesity epidemic which I hope to discuss on the blog soon, and which is available to all here.


Now I’m not yet ready to believe that diet and physical activity play no role in the development of obesity, as there is plenty of evidence that they do.  This paper also used some pretty intense statistical procedures that are above my pay-scale (not surprisingly, this paper was written by the same group as the Obesity Paradox paper that I discussed last week).  But there is enough evidence to suggest that these environmental factors play a role of some kind, and are definitely worth further study.  One other interesting point noted by the authors of the present study is that, assuming all of our lab animals are growing heavier over time, there might be unintended consequences for studies using animal models.  As if research wasn’t complicated enough as it was :)


Hat tip to our good friend, colleague, and former labmate Dr. Jen Kuk for passing along the study.


Travis

ResearchBlogging.orgKlimentidis, Y., Beasley, T., Lin, H., Murati, G., Glass, G., Guyton, M., Newton, W., Jorgensen, M., Heymsfield, S., Kemnitz, J., Fairbanks, L., & Allison, D. (2010). Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1890

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21 Responses to Animal obesity: canary in the coal mine?

  1. Jacy says:

    Animals get obese too so if we care about our pets’ health then we must take care of what they eat just as we watch our calories intake.

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  3. This is a good study. I never thought that animals could also suffer from obesity. I thought it only applies to humans. But what will happen to those animals who suffers from obesity? I mean, what will be its effect to them? Is it the same with humans? We know that obesity is not good and has a lots of impact to our health. Could obesity also affect animal’s health? I’m looking forward for your reply to my question. Thank you. Nice educational post.

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    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      I’m not certain if it’s the same for all animal populations, but in general excess body weight is associated with increased health risk in all mammals that I am aware of.

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  4. Jossie says:

    And yet Japanese and Koreans, who have plenty pollution, chemicals, etc, have an obesity rate almost ten times lower than that of Americans.

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    • Ingrid says:

      Yet – this could still be explained by complex or interactive factors, one of which is an environmental compound which affects endocrine glands (or even a sense of hunger). Do they use as much flame retardant in furniture or Bisphenol-A in soda pop cans in Korea?
      I’m also fascinated with the idea that smoking keeps people thin, because areas where there are still high rates of smoking in the USA often have obesity, yet there was a shift during years when a lot of people stopped.

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  7. canvas photo says:

    Actually, this is my first time to hear that animals also had the tendency to suffer from obesity. Yeah, I’m aware that there’s obesity BUT for all I know, it only applies to humans . I don’t know that there such thing. What’s the cause of obesity to animals? Too much eating of food which is rich in carbs also? Nice study, at least we are aware that we are not the only unlucky one who suffer from what we call ” Obesity”. Thanks for the post.

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  10. Wiseman says:

    In the start while reading I was just laughing. The Vet will say, the Dog has to go to the gym. Dog should make lifestyle changes and should avoid Burger. Jokes apart! Yes, this study was really good and i will take care of my pet in this regards.

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  11. Robert says:

    As a wilde, out of left field guess, I would say that there would have to be a change in the plants we eat. Whenever something seems to be happening in the diet of all species, we generally need to look at the base of our food chain: plants.

    Could it be that with global warming plants are photosynthesizing more and creating more carbohydrates, which some believe is the reason for obesity in the first place? This could also account for the lab animals showing similar weight gain, since plants are plants no matter where they are grown.

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  12. Tim says:

    I would love to know what country this study is based in – Or is this a world phenomenon?

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  13. Alen says:

    What was the study based on? What may be the exact reason. is the cat suffering from metabolic syndrome?

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  14. The authors of “Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics”, (all US institutions based), “suggest” (their own word) in their paper’s abstract that “[t]he consistency of these findings…may involve several as-of-yet unidentified and/or poorly understood factors [emphasis added]“.

    The method used by the authors excluded data from “animals that were calorically restricted or had their food intake titrated to maintain relatively constant body weights”. Therefore there is no data within the paper to show any effect of the searched-for “factors”, which modification of “food intake titrat[ion]” to “maintain relatively constant body weights” might have made necessary. In addition, exclusion of such intentional and reported caloric restriction may well have biased the data since such reportings most likely were less prevalent in earlier studies than in later studies (partly because weight was earlier less known to be related to animal health – just as with humans).

    Dataset of domestic dogs and cats begins in 1990 and 1989, respectively, and therefore excludes caloric value of food fed to pets or their activity levels prior to then. Again this has a distorting effect since the greatest changes in human obesity levels are relative to much earlier decades. The authors also acknowledge, “feeding and housing conditions likely varied tremendously”, but no mention is made of the obesity levels of their owners/caretakers, nor the exercise changes related to such domestic animals (as almost certainly changed by owners lifestyle changes as well as community government regulations relating to domestic animals).

    Feral rat dataset sample of 6115 wild Norway rats “were captured in the central alleys of high-density residential neighbourhoods… rural rat populations were sampled from parklands and agricultural areas in areas surrounding the city, between the years 1948 and 2006.” Acknowledgement is made in the Discussion section of the dependence of their diet on the nearby humans, who have largely (in the US) increased in wealth: “[Feral] rats which presumably largely feed on our refuse, may also be essentially richer” – which implies (but is not specifically stated) that these rats do not have to expend as much energy to obtain food of generally higher caloric value.

    Much attention is given to the statistical manipulation of the data (Methods and Results). However, manipulation of data that is incomplete in any of many ways is of questionable value for obtaining relevant results and conclusions. And such manipulation results are especially suspect regarding recommendations for actions, including the importance of further study, typically funded by taxpayers.

    Several other Discussion points are not fully covered (eg. horses, children less than 6 months of age, lab animal standards, and more) leaving this reader with many unanswered questions that would require careful examination of those cited studies in order to conclude that there is not more missing evidence relating to their conclusions or even strong suspicion concerning some type of bias.

    This paper’s authors make an evaluatively interesting statement:
    “Though it is certainly not necessary that there be a single explanation for all of these population level increases nor even a single explanation for each individual population, it is intriguing to consider whether there are any factors [emphasis added] that could conceivably account for weight increases in all of these populations.”
    The principle of Ockam’s Razor appears to be ignored concerning a possible inference – “not necessary that there be a single explanation” – and, instead, replaced with a desire to search for a complexity of cause/factors/influences.

    Bottom line however is the physical/physiological fact that the obesity of humans and other animals must be directly proportional to total caloric intake. Factors of proportionality may be modified by various influencers, but the directness is a fact of reality which cannot be eliminated. In Aristotelian terms, calorie intake is the material cause of obesity – “something out of which (calories) something (obesity) is made”. (See Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary for material cause) (Technically, “calories” should be replaced by “carbohydrates and fats from food” and “obesity” replaced by “adipose tissue”.)

    “[W]e anticipate that they [our findings] will lead to more research into the previously under-appreciated causes of the recent dramatic rise in obesity rates.” (In the last paragraph of the Conclusion)
    Are the paper’s writers saying that weight is not proportional to caloric intake?!

    Additionally, these writers changed from “help identify environmental influences [emphasis added]” in the Introduction to “under-appreciated causes [emphasis added]” in the last paragraph of their Conclusion, quoted above. This is a logic switch (and not electronic) – “influences” into “causes” – that needs to be recognized and addressed for the distortion in thinking that it is (whether intentional or merely a result of an understandable, but nevertheless unacceptable bias on the part of the authors).

    Humans have the capability of both becoming knowledgeable about any discovered potentially influencing factors on their individual human physiology related to metabolism, and making food and activity choices that result in maintaining or regaining a healthy lean body weight.

    With respect to this type of study in general, great care needs to be made in regards to its meanings, conclusion and relevance to human capabilities.

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    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      Thanks for that detailed comment, Kitty.

      I don’t think anyone is debating the fact that, at it’s core, obesity is caused by an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure (it is *not* simply due to caloric intake… both sides need to be taken into account). But there are many things that can influence both intake and expenditure which are outside of an individual’s control – be it genetics, socio-economic status, or the environment in which they live. Surprisingly, there just isn’t that much evidence that the obesity epidemic has been caused by either increased caloric intake or reduced physical activity. Or rather, the evidence for diet and exercise isn’t any stronger than the evidence for a number of factors. Here is a great review looking at the evidence for a number of possible factors:

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2932668/

      What evidence *would* make you believe that obesity is not simply the result of an individual’s choices? I don’t think we’re ever going to change each other’s minds on this one :)

      Travis

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  15. This a reply to http://blogs.plos.org/obesitypanacea/2010/12/01/animal-obesity-canary-in-the-coal-mine/#comment-2201 done in this manner so as to avoid the ever-decreasing line length for replies in this type of exchange.

    On 03/13/2011 11:50 AM, Obesity Panacea wrote:
    > There is a new comment on the post “Animal obesity: canary in the coal mine?”.
    > http://blogs.plos.org/obesitypanacea/2010/12/01/animal-obesity-canary-in-the-coal-mine/
    >
    > Author: Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP
    > Comment:
    > Thanks for that detailed comment, Kitty.

    I find your “thanks” to be rather shallow when you have not responded to any of the points I made in “that detailed comment” and therefore continue to miss/ignore vital aspects of the entire issue and analysis/evaluation in general.

    > I don’t think anyone is debating the fact that, at it’s core, obesity is caused
    > by an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure

    Good. At least that physical/physiological fact is not being denied. Although it would be far more correct and show more understanding if you had said the material cause (or even the effective cause) of “obesity is” “an imbalance between …”

    > (it is *not* simply due to caloric intake

    I never said it was. What I said was that obesity is always proportional to caloric intake after subtraction of energy expenditure.
    If you had responded inline to my comments, you would not have been logically able to make the statement that you just now did without its error being immediately obvious.

    > … both sides need to be taken into account).

    And that is exactly what I did.

    > But there are many things that can influence both intake and expenditure
    > which are outside of an individual’s control

    No, you are stating it incorrectly! If you had stated “there are many things that can influence the factor of proportionality between both energy intake and weight gain, after expenditure is subtracted, which are outside of an individual’s control” that would be correct. (Although even here, genetics and other prenatal/childhood factors are the only ones that I can think of which are totally outside of an individual’s control.) But both intake and expenditure result from volitional actions. We are not talking about someone who is force-fed or is totally restrained. In all other cases the action of putting food into one’s mouth is voluntary, just as not moving one’s body to increase energy expenditure is also a voluntary choice.

    > – be it genetics, socio-economic status, or the environment in which they live.

    These are components of the factor of proportionality, which you are ignoring, and their effects can be directly neutralized by changes in quantity of intake and/or energy expenditure. Even with respect to those factors noted above which are outside of a person’s control or later direct modification (at this point in time), however, s/he can compensate for such – consuming a different nutritional profile of foods and doing more and/or different types of energy expenditure would be two such obvious ways.
    Individuals can and have throughout history made choices to alter their circumstance of birth including both their “socio-economic status” and/or “the environment in which they live” (or merely the effects of all these).

    > Surprisingly, there just isn’t that much evidence that the obesity epidemic
    > has been caused by either increased caloric intake or reduced physical activity.

    Here again you – and many (?most?) of the current researchers in obesity – are ignoring the volitional aspect of food intake and energy expenditure.

    Maybe formula representation would help you – or at least some readers:

    Adipose tissue accumulation over time D [days] = (daily average food energy intake – daily average body energy expenditure) x D x F [factor of proportionality] or in shorter form: Ad = (Ej – Ee) x D x F

    Factor of proportionality is unique to the individual and is comprised of influences on individual physiology relating to metabolism.

    However returning to your statement above, I strongly object to the use of the term “epidemic” (medically previously always applied to large outbreaks of contagious diseases) for something which is entirely under the volitional control of the population. Yes, obesity is prevalent (one of the vernacular meanings of epidemic), but I don’t think anyone is maintaining that it is a contagious disease and thus it should not be medically termed an “epidemic”.

    > Or rather, the evidence for diet and exercise isn’t any stronger than the
    > evidence for a number of factors. Here is a great review looking at the
    > evidence for a number of possible factors:
    >
    > http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2932668/

    Once again the language used by these researchers is devoid of any understanding of human volition (or the willingness to acknowledge it), demonstrated by the fact that the word “choice” appears only once – in the title of a cited reference.
    Statements such as “cause of this epidemic [emphasis added] remains unclear” are of little value in a scientific paper without a (brief) review of the physics/physiology of obesity in an individual. If such had taken place, then the discussion of “the role of such [microorganisms, epigenetics, increasing maternal age, greater fecundity among people with higher adiposity, assortative mating, sleep debt, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceutical iatrogenesis, reduction in variability of ambient temperatures, and intrauterine and intergenerational effects] putative etiological factors of obesity” could truly “lead to … effective strategies for prevention and treatment of this global epidemic.” Because it would be obvious that the most direct and effective prevention and treatment strategy would be to influence people to voluntarily reduce their energy intake.

    > What evidence *would* make you believe that obesity is not simply the
    > result of an individual’s choices?

    First off, I don’t “believe” anything. But again you are trying to put words in my mouth. No, obesity is not “simply”, but it is directly (materially and effectively) “the result of an individual’s choices”. I am aware of no incontrovertible evidence that in any human population all members have increased in weight while eating the same foods and expending the same amounts of energy as previously even though various environmental factors have changed in the same way for all. Graphically this would be represented as a right shift of the entire distribution curve of number of people (y-axis) versus weight (x-axis). If the non-individually controllable components of the factor of proportionality had really changed, then such a graphical right shift of the distribution curve is what one would expect to see. However, even if that were true (and I remain open to that possibility) this would not mean that any particular individual could not compensate for this.

    Simply take yourself and your blog partner as anecdotal examples; both in your mid 20s/early 30s (my estimate) and compare to others of same gender living in the same general area. It is the choices that the two of you have made that are the cause for you both not being obese while large numbers of those in that comparison group are. I can do the same for me and Paul, 40 – 50 years older than you both; and the reason is the same, even while the number of obese age/gender/location contemporaries to us is even greater.

    I am not suggesting that our having made choices resulting in and maintaining healthy lean bodies, puts you, Peter Janiszewski, Paul and me in some sort of elite category with respect to the rest of humanity (those who are overweight/obese). However, I do suspect that this is the thinking of many in the “obesity field” and is reflected in the writings and behaviors of “gurus” towards their “followers”. Also it is the promotion of weakness of “the masses” that enables all elitists (whether inside or outside of coercive governments) to institute policies of “protection” even at the expense of those “masses”, whether it be as part of the “War on Obesity” or the “War on Drugs” or any of the numerous other dependency-inculcating influences or liberty-restricting actions.

    In conclusion, it is the choices made by the individual humans in the presence of the “Putative Contributors” (from title of paper you referenced) that is of paramount importance (and effectivity) – and this is the factor that is being ignored by obesity researchers. I can only wonder if it is because to bring the subject of human volition/choice out into the open within scientific journals would greatly diminish the justification for vastly more research (and PhD researchers), virtually always at taxpayer expense.

    Even more, “obesity research” about how to motivate more people to use their volition to make better choices is not truly needed since allowing/enabling people to experience/observe the harmful-to-them consequences of their own poor choices – either directly on one’s self or on others – is the most effective way for them to learn better choices. I suggest it is the researchers who need to relearn this fact of human nature, by demonstrating it to themselves.

    Lastly, the “Obesity Panacea” should be: “You DO have control! You are NOT a pawn of your genes and/or your environment! You DO have the ability to make choices. And to help effect this control we [you and Peter] will provide sound scientific information and practical psychological encouragement. BUT the CHOICE is always up to you!”

    > I don’t think we’re ever going to change each other’s minds on this one :)
    >
    > Travis
    >

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    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      Hi Kitty.

      Thanks for the tweet letting me know that the comment didn’t make it through (and the reminder when I didn’t have a chance to approve it yesterday). Despite what you may have thought (judging by your post here), I had no intention to censor or hold back your comment – it was caught in our spam filter while I was on vacation. Our comments get posted automatically without any need for approval from Peter or myself, and I don’t really have anything to gain from censoring you or anyone else. The comments section is far more interesting when people disagree with us, so it’s actually better for us when we get comments like yours.

      The reason that I didn’t respond to your original comment in detail was because, quite frankly, it seems obvious that our opinions differ, and I don’t think anything that either of us says is going to convince the other person on this particular issue. With a comment as detailed as yours I can’t always respond to every single point because I honestly don’t always have the time that is necessary. And when it seems that neither of us is going to change their position as a result of the discussion, it is hard to justify the 1-2 hours that it can take to respond in-depth. In these situations I try to do the next best thing by acknowledging the time and effort that people put into their comment, even if I can’t devote the time necessary to discuss each point in detail.

      I hope you believe me when I say that I do appreciate your comment (I really do), and hope I have your understanding. Next time that a comment gets caught in our spam filter, feel free to send me a private message before you start a thread on a message board alleging censorship. A little good will goes a long way.

      Travis

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      • On 03/22/2011 07:37 PM, Obesity Panacea wrote:
        > There is a new comment on the post “Animal
        > obesity: canary in the coal mine?”.
        > http://blogs.plos.org/obesitypanacea/2010/12/01/animal-obesity-canary-in-the-coal-mine/
        >
        > Author: Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP
        > Comment:
        > Hi Kitty.
        >
        > Thanks for the tweet letting me know that the
        > comment didn’t make it through (and the
        > reminder when I didn’t have a chance to approve
        > it yesterday). Despite what you may have
        > thought (judging by your posthere), I had no intention to
        > censor or hold back your comment – it was
        > caught in our spam filter while I was on
        > vacation. Our comments get posted
        > automatically without any need for approval from
        > Peter or myself, and I don’t really have anything
        > to gain from censoring you or anyone else.

        Good that my second comment, made on 3/13 and noted as “awaiting moderation” for more than 7 days, was not a purposeful hold on your part. I did indeed conclude the latter after your reply to my first comment that did appear immediately.

        However, not checking one’s spam folder on a blog every couple days may be viewed as irresponsible by others (and continued irresponsibility about anything is little different in effect from intentional action). Some blog software even encourages bloggers to do so. Unfortunately a check by me of blogs.plos.org today revealed no information on how “spam” is determined for user blogs or even
        reference to a comment spam folder. On the other hand, yesterday I had a first comment by me at a (Google) bloggers.com blog disappear twice after a few minutes. (I repeated the comment.) An email to the blog owner, resulted in a prompt reply that he had done nothing himself, but that he found both messages in the spam folder and he promptly marked the first “not spam” making it visible. He apologized and complained how he has no idea what Blogger/Google determines as “spam”. All the both of us found was blogger.com’s statement:
        “When someone leaves a comment on your blog, it will be reviewed against our spam detector, and comments that are identified as possible spam will be sent to your blog’s *Spam Inbox*, found at *Comments | Spam*.” And then follows: “You
        can help improve our ability to automatically detect spam comments by checking your *Spam Inbox* and deleting spam comments and marking real comments that may have been flagged as spam as *Not Spam*.” It’s this last recommendation that I
        thought I’d find at plos.org but did not.

        > The comments section is far more interesting
        > when people disagree with us, so it’s actually
        > better for us when we get comments like yours.
        >
        > The reason that I didn’t respond to your original
        > comment in detail was because, quite frankly, it
        > seems obvious that our opinions differ, and I
        > don’t think anything that either of us says is going
        > to convince the other person on this particular
        > issue.

        Travis, there are opinions, evidence (including measurable data) and logic – and there is considerable difference between the first and the third. Except for some content in the closing paragraphs of my last comment, there was nothing but logical review of the evidence presented in the paper to which you had referred. You did not question any of my logic, but instead continue to refer to my “opinion”, leading me to wonder as to how much you understand of logic. (Actually in the last 25 years I’ve wondered that about lots of what is written and published, more so with the advent of the Internet. It may have much to do with a lessening of educational quality in North America and much of the rest of the world.)

        I care very little (and often not at all) for someone’s “opinions”, but only about evidence/data and the logical review of it leading to conclusions. One can
        reasonably have an opinion as to what next step to take in a line of research, but valid conclusions from that research can only be derived from logical review of it.

        > With a comment as detailed as yours I can’t
        > always respond to every single point because I
        > honestly don’t always have the time that is
        > necessary. And when it seems that neither of us is
        > going to change their position as a result of the
        > discussion, it is hard to justify the 1-2 hours that
        > it can take to respond in-depth. In these
        > situations I try to do the next best thing by
        > acknowledging the time and effort that people
        > put into their comment, even if I can’t devote the
        > time necessary to discuss each point in detail.

        If lack of time is truly the case, one need only say so, but then demonstrate the stated “appreciation” by responding at least to 1 or 2 points in a direct
        logical manner. However, I do not see *any* logical review being taken by you – either of the research to which you referred me or of my independent review of it, which leads me back to the parenthetical comment above.

        > I hope you believe me when I say that I do
        > appreciate your comment (I really do), and hope
        > I have your understanding. Next time that a
        > comment gets caught in our spam filter, feel free
        > to send me a private message before you start a
        > thread on a message boardalleging censorship. A little good will goes a long way.

        I’ll take you at your word on this, Travis, and in future, let you know personally if a message from me fails to actually get automatically published.
        BTW my copying of my comments here at MoreLife Yahoo provided your blog with additional visibility. I will follow-up that last post of mine there with the
        explanation of the long sit in your blog’s spam folder, so that my attribution to you of possible intentional censorship is removed.

        **Kitty

        > Travis

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  16. Coal Mining says:

    This canary in the coal mine study is very interesting. It never crossed my mind that animals can also suffer from obesity just like humans.

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