The Science of Eating

TEDxSMU speaker explains why burgers may be more dangerous for men than women

TEDxSMU speaker explains how men and women respond differently to fat

It’s no secret that the United States has an obesity problem, which has been brought on by decades of high-fat, high-sugar diets. Dr. Deborah Clegg from Cedars-Sinai Diabetes & Obesity Research Institute in Los Angeles, one of the speakers at TEDxSMU at Dallas City Performance Hall on November 1, has been working for years on obesity-related studies.

Her talk will focus on a variety of subjects, including a recent study in mice that showed male and female brains respond remarkably differently to fatty foods, and those differences in the brain lead to greater inflammation and increased health risks in males. The bottom line: High-fat meals could be more harmful to men than women, and diets and drugs recommended to manage obesity may need to be sex-specific to be more effective.

“The way we treat patients and provide dietary and nutritional advice should be altered,” Clegg has said. “We might be less concerned about an occasional hamburger for women, but for men we might more strongly encourage avoidance, especially if they have pre-existing diseases such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes.”

In advance of her lecture, Clegg took the time to answer some of our burning questions.

CultureMap Dallas: Can you give us a preview of your TED talk?

Dr. Deborah Clegg: It will be about passions, pursuit of dreams, crazy twists and turns that our lives take, and what I have learned along the way. There will also be take-home messages about how and where fat is stored in our body and its health consequences, like how fats in our diet trick our brain, causing us to eat too much and not be full.

CM: How did you first become interested in this line of work and these kinds of studies?

DC: This is the key message in my TED talk. I began this research years ago by an “oops,” where I picked up the wrong sex of rat to do my studies. My findings were completely opposite of what we expected; when we discovered that I had gotten the “wrong” sex, it opened my eyes to the fact that males and females are not the same.

Much research needs to focus on female metabolism, because 99.9 percent of all research is done in males.

CM: What is it about mice that leads scientists to believe that the reactions of their bodies are similar to humans?

DC: Most of the genes in humans are also found in mice, making them an excellent model to study. The experiments I performed were in the brain, and even though those studies can’t be performed at the moment in humans, they tell us about how the brain influences metabolism, the heart and diabetes. 

CM: Do you see any danger in stating that female brains have a “force field” around them that protects them from fat and sugar? Some might use that as an excuse to eat whatever they want.

DC: It isn’t an excuse: Females are different from males. Females will gain weight by eating foods that are high in calories, but they won’t be as unhealthy as males when they eat the same foods.

The message is important: Women can occasionally eat foods that are bad, and we will gain weight, but that weight gain won’t cause as much damage to our metabolism as if men eat foods that are bad. This is important research since it begins tell us that we need to design therapies based on sex instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.

CM: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the eating habits of Americans, and do you think that studies like yours can have an impact on how we eat?

DC: I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic; it is what it is. People are eating too much and not exercising enough. We have an obesity epidemic, and we have a healthcare crisis, and the current message to the consumer isn’t working. People are gaining more and more weight and getting more and more unhealthy, so knowledge is key and important.

The more we know about how men and women process foods, the more we can develop therapies to help them improve their health.

CM: What do you hope anyone who attends your TED talk will get out if it?

DC: Males and females are different. Research needs to be done in both sexes, and it currently is not. How and where we store fat is key, as is how it talks to our brains. The more we learn, the better we will be able to help folks who struggle with their health and diet.

Dr. Deborah Clegg
Listen to Dr. Deborah Clegg speak at TEDxSMU at Dallas City Performance Hall on November 1. Photo courtesy of Dr. Deborah Clegg