Links in Obesity & Disease Development

toddFall 2012

By Jon Parham

With statistics showing almost 65 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, Reza Hakkak, Ph.D., believes obesity has changed the way the body responds to diseases, connecting the dots to cancer and liver disease among others.

In the late 1980s when he joined the UAMS faculty as a nutrition researcher, Hakkak, now chairman of the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition in the College of Health Professions, said not many were talking about the growing obesity problem in America. But as American diets included more and more greasy, fried foods and super-sized fast food meals, the impact was seen not only on the waistline but on people’s health.

“As a researcher, one cannot say that we are normal anymore – you have to factor obesity rates into any study about disease development,” he said. “We have changed. We must now consider obesity as a factor in most all disease-related research.”

In two decades of research, he has focused on how obesity relates to tumor development and has already pointed to some dietary-cancer connections. He was among the first to connect obesity and breast cancer development.

In research funded in part by a 2005 grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a cancer-causing substance found in cigarette smoke, car exhaust and some cooked foods was more likely to cause mammary tumors in obese rats compared to lean rats. He said it isn’t a far stretch to assume that the same thing is happening in women with weight problems.

He also is looking at how a diet rich in soybeans and soy products, a major source of protein for many, may increase or decrease cancer risk depending on body weight. The relationship between soy consumption and disease is a complicated one, Hakkak said. While a soy-heavy diet may lower the cancer risk for someone at a healthy weight, obesity appears to raise the risk.

Hakkak linked extra body fat to higher hormone levels that promote breast cancer development.

He also sees a connection between obesity and fatty liver disease. Long-term soy consumption may offer some protection against fatty liver disease caused by obesity, so a diet high in soy products could be one way of reducing fatty liver disease among the obese population, he said.

Hakkak is now focusing on how obesity may affect bacteria in the intestines. Obesity, he said, may affect how this bacteria breaks down food and serve as a link to disease prevention or promotion, which is the focus of research in his lab at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

“If we can identify the dietary factors that lead to disease prevention, we can try to get people to modify their lifestyle,” said Hakkak, who also serves as the editor for the Journal of Obesity and Weight Loss Therapy. “That is why nutrition education and research is so important.”

He believes there is a need to educate the community and the effects of diet and lifestyle on disease development.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to lose weight,” he said. “We continue to find that obesity appears to promote disease development.”