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Is Obesity a communicable disease?

Dr. oec. troph. Stephanie Ruf, Nutritionist

Obesity is known to be caused by genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors. Being overweight increases the risk of other non-communicable diseases such as heart diseases or type 2 diabetes. 

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) is putting the theory that obesity is non-communicable to the test. A study that was recently published in the journal Science discusses the human microbiome as a carrier.

The microbiome influences our health 
The microbiome consists of the bacteria, viruses and fungi living in the intestine, the rhinal and oropharyngeal cavity, the urogenital tract and the skin, and is linked to our metabolic system. The influence the microbiome has on the body has been researched for years by the Human Microbiome Project (HMP). The composition of the microbiome varies from person to person. Even the type of birth influences the health of an infant’s microbiome: During a vaginal birth, the mother’s individual germ spectrum is passed on to the infant. The microbiome of children born via C-section, on the other hand, has a different composition. 

Is obesity passed on via the microbiome?
The discussion about whether it is a cause or merely a symptom is still ongoing.

What is known so far:

1) With many diseases such as obesity or type 2 diabetes, the human microbiome differs from that of a healthy individual.

2) Laboratory experiments show that changes in the microbiome lead to diseases. For example, when the intestinal microbiome of diseased people is transferred into germ-free mice, they develop the same disease. The same could be shown for obesity:
A healthy and slim specimen would become obese after being affected with the microbiome of an overweight mouse or obese human. 

3) Study results indicate that the microbiome of living organisms in a common habitat converges.

The current study (Finlay 2020) suggests there is a possibility of obesity being transmissible from one individual to another, making it a communicable disease. This may also be the case for other diseases classified as non-communicable. 

Further research is needed to answer questions like whether a healthy microbiome is transmissible and what constitutes an ‘unhealthy’ microbiome. Apart from that, the general way of transmission is not yet clear.
It will be interesting to see whether the link between the microbiome and certain diseases can be exploited and how this would look like – e.g. therapeutics or microbiome screenings.

Finlay BB. Are noncommunicable diseases communicable? Science 2020; Vol. 367, Issue 6475: 250-251
Bosch TCG. Beispiel Adipositas: Sind „nicht-ansteckende“ Krankheiten „ansteckend“? Nutrition-News 2020, Nr. 20: 7-8