You mean it's not the foie gras with truffle oil on a bed of fettuccine? New research suggests that obesity may be caused by a contagious virus related to the common cold virus, the (UK) Independent reported Sept. 21.

Scientists at UC San Diego say the discovery of this strain of adenovirus, which has been labeled the “fat bug,” is new evidence for an illness they have called “infectobesity”–obesity that is transmitted from person to person, like an infection. There are more than 50 strains of adenovirus known to infect humans but only one, adenovirus 36, has been linked to human obesity. Laboratory studies showed the virus infects immature fat cells, prompting them to proliferate and grow more quickly.

The UC San Diego researchers have found that children who showed evidence of infection with adenovirus 36 were significantly more likely to be fat. In tests on 124 children aged 8 to 18, the virus was present in more than 20 percent of those who were obese, compared with less than 6 percent of the rest. Among those infected with adenovirus 36, four out of five were obese. The researchers' findings were published in the journal Pediatrics on Sept. 20.

“This work helps point out that body weight is more complicated than it's made out to be. And it is time that we move away from assigning blame in favor of developing a level of understanding that will better support efforts at both prevention and treatment,” Jeffrey Schwimmer, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics, who led the study, said in a statement.

The idea of a viral cause for obesity was first raised a decade ago by Nikhil Dhurandhar, a researcher in Louisiana. Further studies revealed that one in five obese people showed signs of adenovirus infections and were on average about 28 pounds heavier than people who had never been infected. Dhurandhar said the evidence was as clear as a map of the U.S.–where the obesity epidemic “has spread like a forest fire from the East Coast to the West over the last 20 years.”

While most scientists believe that genetics, diet and lifestyle play heavy roles in obesity, this research gives hope of potential new medical treatments. Fat vaccine with your flu shot, anyone?

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