Chewing over the fat issue
An exhibition at Dublin’s Science Gallery wants to broaden our perceptions of fat
Blubber. Lard. Triglycerides. Call it what you like, but fat pushes our buttons. The term itself conjures up images of obesity, ill health, breakfasts swimming in grease that are best limited to the occasional weekend, and deep-fried doughnuts. But are we missing the bigger picture?
A new exhibition called Fat: It’s Delicious, running at the Science Gallery in Dublin, seeks to broaden our perceptions of fat, its science and its links to health and disease.
“It’s all to do with the magic of this family of molecules, the fats, that are really key to how our bodies function,” says curator Cliona O’Farrelly, professor of comparative immunology at Trinity College Dublin.
Fat: It’s Delicious: - Claire O'Connell interviews curators
“We need fat to insulate our body’s internal organs and to build the membranes that envelop each of our billions of cells. And fat is one of the great energy sources in nature: think about how whales power through oceans and feed their young fuelled by their fat deposits.
“In these cases, fat is really valuable.”
While marine mammals and polar bears might benefit from carrying plenty of fat in storage, humans tend not to fare so well with fat overload.
O’Farrelly is interested in the links between obesity and the immune system, and how excess fat deposits, particularly in the belly fat, can go hand in hand with chronic inflammation.
This could help explain why obesity is associated with a ramped-up risk of diabetes, heart disease and even certain cancers, says O’Farrelly, whose research suggests that immune cells become compromised when the belly-fat levels rise.
“We know that the fat deposits in the belly are home to important anti-tumour cells and other immune cells, but that changes in obesity,” she says.
“These protective cells are present in large amounts when people are lean, and when fat accumulates in the belly these anti-tumour cells decrease.
“We think this is why people who carry a lot of this abdominal fat are more susceptible to certain cancers.”
Questions left to answer
Fat: It’s Delicious is also looking to explore the complexities of why people become obese, according to curator Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry at Trinity and director of the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute.
“People often have this perception that obesity is just about overeating and not taking enough exercise, and, yes, of course that plays a part, but there may also be more to it than that,” he says.
“There may be a genetic disposition to store fat, and some people do not get the feeling of satiety, or fullness, when they eat.
“Also, it seems the bacteria we carry in our guts could be linked to weight gain, so there are a lot of questions that science has yet to answer here,” O’Neill adds.
Better imaging methods are also opening our eyes to different types of fat in humans, such as the so-called “brown fat” that promotes fat burning rather than storage, according to O’Neill, and visitors to the exhibition will be able to view the differences for themselves.
Meanwhile, O’Farrelly stresses that a better understanding of how fat works in the body will feed into a clearer picture of how it affects health.
“It’s terribly important that we don’t become obsessed just with accumulation of fat in obesity,” she says.
“We need research and new knowledge to understand what’s going on and how we can keep people healthy.”
Hands-on fat: a ‘diner experience’
As a topic, fat offers plenty to chew on, and this exhibition aims to make it more digestible with a “diner experience” that lets the public choose hands-on activities and installations from a menu.
“We are looking at what fat is, what is its function and form, how it is distributed on the body and how it makes things palatable,” says Maria Phelan from the Science Gallery, who is research co-ordinator for Fat: It’s Delicious.
Options include having some of your own physiological measurements taken, and the chance to take part in a range of ongoing research experiments about how fat affects body and mind.
There are artworks on display that explore the uses of fat (soap from human fat, anyone?) and hands-on demonstrations of fatty science.
There will even be liposuctioned fat on display for those who have the stomach for it.
Phelan appreciates, however, that fat can be a sensitive issue.
“We have taken into account that people may want privacy if they want to have tests done,” she says.
“But we are not afraid to broach the subject of fat – it is a fascinating substance to talk about.”
Fat: It’s Delicious is supported by the Wellcome Trust and runs at the Science Gallery, Pearse Street, Dublin 2, until June 29th. Admission to the general exhibition is free, but specific events may require booking and an entry fee.
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