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Week of 13 February 1998

Vol. I, No. 20

Feature Article

Biology prof's book explains why geese don't get obese (and we do)

by Cliff Bernard

Ever wonder how Gator Ade got its name? Why would a 'gator need a lime drink with a pinch of salt anyway? More important, why do so many people get morbidly obese and suffer from associated diseases such as hypertension and diabetes while many of our fellow animals, such as the bear, go through fat/thin cycles with no ill effects? The answers to these questions, and many more, are to be found in Eric P. Widmaier's upcoming book Why Geese Don't Get Obese (and We Do): How Evolution's Strategies for Survival Affect Our Everyday Lives.

I found the CAS associate professor of biology in his den, a long rectangle of an office at the end of a maze of narrow corridors in that older gray building at 2 Cummington Street. Widmaier's office will never be written up in Architectural Digest. This is a no-frills workspace. At one end of the long room is a Macintosh computer, its monitor fringed with yellow Post-it stickers. At the opposite end dozens of file boxes fill the shelves. In the center, next to a small window overlooking the dumpsters at the end of Blandford Street, is a bookcase crammed with large hardcover science texts. Above it are a few color snaps of his wife, son, and daughter. The only other personal touches are an old framed photo of the New York Yankees and a couple of Japanese art prints.

I ask Widmaier how he came up with such an intriguing title for his new book.

"Well, geese get fat for a reason," he says, "to prepare for the rigors of migration. Therefore, their fat is healthy -- part of the normal life cycle -- and they work it off." A youthful 47, with a full black beard and dark hair, he leans forward in his chair as he warms to his subject. "We humans fatten up with no benefit," Widmaier says, "so why do we get fat?"

The answer apparently has to do with evolutionary adaptation. Back in the days before pizza and Chianti, when humans had to forage far and wide for a meager diet, says Widmaier, "people with a slow metabolism, who could put on fat quickly, had a better chance of surviving. Now there's no scarcity of easily available food and what was once an evolutionary strength is now a liability."

Professor Eric Widmaier

Professor Eric Widmaier

In the book, he puts it this way: "Ancient man didn't have the temptations, or even the abundance of foods available today. There were no cookies in bakery windows, no potato chips to snack on while watching TV, no grocery stores with all the food you could ever want. He ate what he caught or found lying around. And he worked hard for his food, which meant he used up precious calories simply finding something to eat."

Widmaier's prose is like his speech. Informal for a scientific work, more measured than a novel, the text succeeds in being informative, precise, and engaging. From the beginning, he puts readers at their ease: "Don't be alarmed," he writes in chapter one. "You won't need a Ph.D. in physics to understand how the forces of nature influence how your body works." And he is as good as his word. Many of us would be a little alarmed at the prospect of trying to follow a scientific explanation of basal metabolic rate, but Widmaier makes