Billionaires Fund A ‘Manhattan Project’ For Nutrition And Obesity

Why would a billionaire energy trader-turned-philanthropist throw his foundation’s substantial dough behind a new think tank that wants to challenge scientific assumptions about obesity?

John Arnold, 38, whose move from Enron to a spectacularly successful hedge fund got him on the list of wealthiest Americans, doesn’t often talk to the press. But certainly his decision with his wife Laura to back a newly launched operation called the Nutrition Science Initiative, NuSi, is an intriguing one.

Obesity and dietary confusion is clearly a massive problem that doesn’t seem to be going away; NuSi says what it can do to help is conduct large-scale scientific studies to answer some basic questions we still don’t have good answers to, like how food really affects fat, hormones and brain.

We’re told by NuSi’s president, Peter Attia, a Stanford and Johns Hopkins-trained doctor, that Arnold’s interest in the cause started with a podcast featuring science journalist and NuSi co-founder, Gary Taubes.

Taubes has been arguing for the last several years in books and articles in the New York Times Magazine that current dietary guidelines and beliefs about what has caused the obesity epidemic are wrong and based on poor science. Attia says Arnold approached Taubes after he realized he could bring resources to bear on the problem that “good” studies on how food actually affects the body are very expensive.

“It’s really quite difficult to study nutrition in humans at the level of precision that scientists in other fields can get,” says Attia. That’s because nutrition researchers can’t control exactly what their subjects eat — unless they keep them in a lab for weeks on end. In the absence of that, researchers rely on the subjects to report what they ate — a unreliable method because people’s memory of this is notoriously bad.

So NuSi plans to give money to the “best nutrition researchers in the country” doing the most cutting edge research, according to Attia. The hope is enable these researchers do much bigger studies than what they can currently afford to do with the five-year, $2.5 million National Institutes of Health grants most of them rely on.

“We want to get to the moon; in other words, we want to discover the perfect set of rules and understand what controls obesity and the metabolic syndrome,” he says.

When they get there, NuSi claims, they’ll have the tools to lower the obesity prevalence rate in the U.S. from 35 percent to 15 percent, and the diabetes rate from 8 percent to 2 percent. Their goal is to do this by 2020. That would translate into billions in health care savings, too.

NuSi has attracted some big names to its board of advisers, ranging from James Lambright, of the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Export-Import Bank to “4-hour” lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss. In his typically hyperbolic prose, Ferriss called NuSi “an X-men-like group of the world’s best scientists, independently funded and uninfluenced by industry, tackling the most important questions in nutrition.”

That NuSi’s studies will not be dependent on the food industry is significant — many nutrition and obesity researchers nowadays have nowhere to turn but the industry to test new ideas. (See Allison Aubrey’s recent story on probiotics in yogurt for one example of that.) But industry backing can make consumers and others skeptical of their findings, sometimes with good reason.

The Arnold Foundation’s support of NuSi falls under its “research integrity” focus; the foundation also fund projects looking for solutions to criminal justice, education and public accountability problems.

Will NuSi really be able to silence all the chatter out there one and for all about the best diet to stay healthy? Seems like a pretty lofty goal, but certainly a Manhattan Project for nutrition is worth trying.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.