A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity

Claudia Dreifus in the New York Times:

You are an M.I.T.-trained mathematician and physicist. How did you come to work on obesity?

ScreenHunter_04 May. 16 23.42In 2004, while on the faculty of the math department at the University of Pittsburgh, I married. My wife is a Johns Hopkins ophthalmologist, and she would not move. So I began looking for work in the Beltway area. Through the grapevine, I heard that the N.I.D.D.K., a branch of the National Institutes of Health, was building up its mathematics laboratory to study obesity. At the time, I knew almost nothing of obesity.

I didn’t even know what a calorie was. I quickly read every scientific paper I could get my hands on.

I could see the facts on the epidemic were quite astounding. Between 1975 and 2005, the average weight of Americans had increased by about 20 pounds. Since the 1970s, the national obesity rate had jumped from around 20 percent to over 30 percent.

The interesting question posed to me when I was hired was, “Why is this happening?”

Why would mathematics have the answer?

Because to do this experimentally would take years. You could find out much more quickly if you did the math.

Now, prior to my coming on staff, the institute had hired a mathematical physiologist, Kevin Hall. Kevin developed a model that could predict how your body composition changed in response to what you ate. He created a math model of a human being and then plugged in all the variables — height, weight, food intake, exercise. The model could predict what a person will weigh, given their body size and what they take in.

However, the model was complicated: hundreds of equations. Kevin and I began working together to boil it down to one simple equation.

More here.