Chewing over the fat issue

An exhibition at Dublin’s Science Gallery wants to broaden our perceptions of fat

Science Gallery exhibition highlights why we need fat and how we can benefit from it. Fat: It’s Delicious opens on Friday 16th of May and runs until June 29th. Video: Daniel O'Connor

Tue, May 20, 2014, 01:00

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.”


Immune links
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.

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