Weight Problems: Obesity 102

By Cat, June 2007; updated October 2007; updated May 2019

What if the medical and pharmaceutical industries have it wrong about obesity? What if it indicates a metabolic problem that can be resolved by increasing dietary fats for energy, while decreasing high-carb foods; and taking a simple supplement instead of an increasingly expensive life-time drug (insulin, etc.)?

Obesity 101 review:

Myths:

  1. Obesity is a lifestyle problem” (overeating and sedentary behavior).
  2. “Fat provides twice as many calories per gram as carbs or proteins, so when you are trying to cut calories, limiting fats gets you the biggest bang for your caloric buck.
  3. “Dietary fats just turn into body fat.”

Facts:

  1. Low fat diets promote weight gain, not weight loss.  Most dietary fat is not converted to body fat, but rather is required on a daily basis for many cellular and physiological functions.  Instead, body fat is made from excess dietary carbs, which are converted to palmitic acid (a fat) in the liver and then transported for storage in fat tissues.
  2. If you are obese, with most of your excess weight around your middle, and you have elevated blood insulin: you may also have problems with cortisol and other hormone levels.
  3. “Insulin, secreted in response to excess dietary carbohydrates promotes fat, and then wards off the body’s ability to lose that fat.” (2B)

Hypothesis:

Sedentary behavior, and indulgence in sweets and other simple carbs, is a consequence of a metabolic problem, rather than the cause. 

The Fat Myth

Back in 1950s when I was a kid, most people ate a fairly balanced diet of fats, carbs and protein. However, one man was about to change all that.  His name was Ancel Keys, a diet researcher for whom military K-rations are named.  He concluded that dietary fat — any fat — was a major cause of heart disease. (2D) 8

At first, people rejected his hypothesis.  Indeed, in 1957 the American Heart Association (AHA) concluded “the evidence that dietary fat correlates with heart disease does not stand up to critical examination.”  But Mr. Keys did not give up.  He got himself appointed to an AHA committee that subsequently issued a new report that reversed the earlier position, and advised a low-fat diet for people at risk of heart disease. (2D) 

Since that time, considerable effort has been expended to find other ways in which a diet high in fat is harmful to human health.  In particular, animal fats have been the most targeted, while vegetable fat has been promoted as health giving (especially those from GMO seeds: soy, corn and canola).  Animal fat is now blamed for problems such as obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis and heart disease. 2019 update: That trend is changing; in 2014, science declared that butter (and other animal fats) are healthful fats (see articles published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (10) and Medical News Today (11)).

We must remember that all of this can be traced back to Mr. Keys’ obsession about dietary fats.  We must ask, what proof did he have?  Was his conclusion valid?  Or was he misguided?

Lets look back at history prior to Mr. Keys assertion, to find where truth lies.

A Look Back at History

Heart disease, stroke, clogged arteries, high blood pressure and diabetes were rare prior to the 20th century.  Type-II diabetes first appeared in the 1930s, but was extremely rare.  Prior to that, even type-1 (or insulin dependent) diabetes was rare.  And so was obesity.  And now it has reached epidemic proportions.

So, what changes were happening nearly 100 years ago that could have caused, or helped, this epidemic to emerge?

  • Introduction of margarine and crisco (trans fats) in 1910; general acceptance of its use came in the 1920s, to conserve resources for the war effort;
  • Pasteurization of milk and other raw foods began in late 1800s in urban areas; generally accepted by consumers in the early 1930s;
  • Industrial pollution increased;
  • Use of cars and of leaded gasoline to power them increased.

Lets look at these happenings more closely.

Trans Fats

So, you might ask, what is behind insulin resistance and obesity?   Many researchers are concluding it is the introduction of trans fats into our American diet.  Recent news items report that the consumption of trans fats has been linked to heart disease (CHD). (3)  But what could they possibly have to do with sugar metabolism or weight gain?

Replacing natural fats with hydrogenated trans fats in the diet affects the composition of the outer membranes of every cell in our bodies, in turn affecting the action of the receptor sites imbedded in the membranes; receptors like the one for insulin.  

But unlike their natural bent and kinked Omega-3 cousins, trans fats are rigid and stiff, and adversely affect the functionality of the protein receptors.  This includes the insulin receptors, which become insensitive to the presence and action of insulin. The result? Insulin Resistance, and the cell is starved of sugar.  

It’s not just the cell membranes that are impacted.  So also are the membranes of the mitochondria, where sugar is burned as fuel.  When their membranes contain trans fats, the mitochondria no longer process the sugar properly (if they are lucky enough to get a sugar molecule to burn).

With daily exposure to trans fats in the diet, it doesn’t take long for all the fuel burning muscle cells to have developed the problem, and the person’s physiology changes to one of insulin resistance.  That means blood insulin levels become elevated; in turn, elevated insulin:

  • Down-regulates the conversion of T4 (stored thyroid hormone) to T3 (active thyroid hormone, which in turn decreases the body’s rate of metabolism, which could result in weight gain;
  • Signals the liver to turn the excess sugar in the blood into storage fat, to be stored in the adipose tissue, which also results in weight gain.

To learn how to be tested for elevated blood insulin, refer to my article on Syndrome-X. For more on this subject, refer to my articles on Insulin Resistance:

See also my articles on Thyroid Function and Thyroid Imbalance. (links are to old iWeb sites in Metabolism and Disease sections; update links when those articles are moved).

Saturated vs Unsaturated Fats

This history is related to the Trans fats story above.

Back in the late 1940s, science discovered the difference between these two categories of fats; saturated means that all carbon-to-carbon bonds in the hydrocarbon chain of fats are single bonds; unsaturated means that one or more of these carbon-to-carbon bonds is/are double bond(s). Single bonds allow rotation of the chain at the bond so that the chain is mostly linear; double bonds do not allow rotation and may cause a kink in the chain.

Once that was known, scientists started to study the importance of this difference, especially for human health. Ancel Keys’ research involved determining whether saturated fats were behind the problem known as “heart disease.” But instead of using natural saturated fats (such as those in butter and coconut oil), he chemically altered unsaturated fats by “hydrogenating” them – adding two hydrogens at each double bond, making them “saturated.” Unfortunately, the method he used to hydrogenate did not add the two hydrogens but rather simply turned the double bond from a “cis” bond to a “trans” bond. Cis double-bonds cause an important kink in the chain, but trans double-bonds form a rigid linear structure that cannot rotate. 

The fats he then used for his research were the trans unsaturated forms, but he thought they were saturated. His research showed that those fats did indeed cause problems in the arteries leading to heart disease, so he declared saturated fats as “bad for you.” There were other issues with his research, that I won’t get into here; see BulletProof blog (13) for more if you are interested.

It took several decades before it was discovered that he actually used trans unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats in his research. And then a few decades more before this information reached the general public with the NY Time headline: Butter is Back! in 2014 (14). By then, most people knew that trans fats are not healthful (except for the very few that are natural trans fats, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)), so that saturated fats – especially the medium-chain types (MCTs) – are becoming popular.

Cyclic High-Fat Ketogenic Diet for Insulin Resistance

This section added with May 2019 update.

The keto diet is a high fat, low carb and moderate protein eating plan. It helps with weight loss, and also helps to restore insulin sensitivity.

The most well-known high-fat diet was the Atkins Diet in the 1980s, but it differs from keto in that it was both high fat and high protein (with low carbs). High protein diets can be problematic, leading to certain types of cancer by activating the mTOR signalling pathway.

A true keto diet:

  • Allows cells to burn fats rather than sugar as fuel, so less insulin circulates in the blood and insulin receptors are not needed, lowering blood insulin.
  • This, together with the low-carb aspect of the diet lowers blood sugar.
  • Thus, there is less excess blood sugar that needs to be converted into fat by the liver and then stored in the adipose tissue as well as the liver. 
  • Results in potential weight loss, potential reversal of fatty liver, and return of insulin sensitivity.

However, once the body begins preferentially burning fats for energy, it is important to switch to a cyclic keto plan, mimicking “feast and famine” diet of indigenous people by eating high-carb and protein/low-fat on 2 – 3 feast days, and high-fat/low-carb/reduced protein on 4 – 5 famine days each week. See my article: Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD) and Metabolic Mitochondrial Therapy (MMT) for more about this.

Other Dietary Issues

Pasteurization

Pasteurization was invented by Lois Pasteur in 1864, to keep wine from spoiling, and was extended to milk in the late 1800s (but the general public rejected it, preferring their raw milk). The link between diabetes and pasteurization is less clear than the link to trans fats.  Lactose, the sugar in milk, is not normally absorbed as lactose; rather bacteria in the gut convert it to lactic acid, which can be absorbed, or it is broken down by your lactase enzyme (if you have any) to glucose and galactose, both of which can be adsorbed.  

There is some evidence that pasteurization alters lactose, making it more readily absorbable (1).  While the human body is not prepared to deal with absorbed lactose, it is likely that the body can recognize it chemically as a sugar, causing stress to the pancreas to produce enough insulin to deal with it.

A link between pasteurization and obesity is perhaps more direct.  Pasteurization destroys most of the nutritional value of milk, especially the enzymes that assist digestion and assimilation of milk’s nutrients.  In particular, the enzyme phosphatase, which is required for the body to absorb calcium and other minerals properly.  Calcium is now known to play a very important role in weight regulation, by increasing metabolic rate (the rate at which the body burns fuel — sugar).  Increased metabolic rate is usually associated with weight loss, if caloric intake remains constant (2A). 

For more on the subject of milk and pasteurization, refer to my articles on Milk:

Dietary Fructose

Fructose is common in the modern American diet.  It is one half of a molecule of sucrose, or table sugar (the other half is glucose); it is the major component of HFCS or High Fructose Corn Syrup, and of most agave nectar.  At one time it was believed that fructose was simply converted to glucose by the body, and then burned, as glucose, for energy.  It was believed that fructose was a better sugar than glucose because of the time delay in entering the blood stream (caused by the need to convert to glucose first).  But now it is known that fructose is handled much differently in the body, than previously thought.  And many scientists believe that it is a major culprit behind metabolic syndrome and weight gain.

“Eating too much fructose causes uric acid levels to spike, which can block the ability of insulin to regulate how body cells use and store sugar and other nutrients for energy, leading to obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, said [Dr Robert] Johnson … of the University of Florida’s College of Medicine. Researchers first detailed the role of uric acid on insulin resistance and obesity in a 2005 study in rats.” (9)  Dr. Johnson suggests that fructose is far more problematic than starches (rice, potatoes, pasta, breads, etc.), which are primarily made up of glucose.  “Fructose may have the unique ability to induce insulin resistance and features of the metabolic syndrome that other foods don’t do so easily.”

Natural fructose is found, of course, in most fruits.  But processed fructose (in the form of high fructose corn syrup) is found in many other foods:  soft drinks, pastries, ketchup, fruits, table sugar and jellies and in many processed foods.

However, when fructose is linked to other fructose molecules in chains called “fructans,” it is not known to be problematic.  Indeed, fructans are considered “fiber,” because we cannot digest them.  Instead, they are digested by probiotic bacteria in our gut, to form short chain fatty acids (acetic, propionic, butyric and lactic acids), rather than to release free fructose.  These acids are known to be beneficial for the liver and the release of bile, which in turn helps fat digestion and promotes a better lipid profile (cholesterol levels).

Fructans are common in the roots of compositae plants (thistles, artichokes, etc), and in unripe bananas,  as “inulin” and “FOS” (Fructo-oligosaccharides). See my articles: Carbohydrates, A Review and Carbs: Inulin (a non-starchy carb) for more.

Essential vs Non-Essential B Vitamins

This section added with May 2019 update.

At one time, the list of B-vitamins was longer than it is today; it included B4 (adenine), B8 (inositol), B10 (para amino benzoic acid – PABA), and B11 (salicylic acid). One of the requirements to be a “vitamin” is that it has to be “essential,” meaning that the body cannot make it and it has to be obtained from the diet. Little regard was taken to the fact that most adults make less and less of certain vitamins as they age, and thus must get the majority of such vitamins from their diet.

The one that is important for insulin sensitivity (and consequently avoiding obesity and fatty liver) is B8, or inositol. It is an essential part of all cell and mitochondrial membranes, helps us process fat in our liver, and helps our muscles and nerves work properly. It is also effective in treating psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and panic disorder. (12)

But because it was declared to be non-essential, many people do not get enough in their diet. It is now believed that it is a main factor in cells’ inability to respond to insulin, even when those cells need more sugar for energy, either by shutting off the insulin receptors, or removing them from the cell membranes.

There is strong evidence that adding inositol supplementally (myo- and chirp-inositol) resolves this problem by restoring active insulin receptors. See my articles: Choline & LecithinInositol, Choline and Lecithin; Choline & Lecithin; and Supplements For Insulin Resistance, for more.

Thyroid and Other Endocrine Imbalances

Thyroid

The thyroid hormones control the metabolic rate by affecting how the cells use energetic compounds (protein, fat and carbohydrates).  Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, is a failure to produce enough thyroid hormone to support the body’s metabolism needs.  This can result in weight gain, and an inability to lose excess weight.

Many factors can cause hypothyroidism, such as mercury and arsenic poisoning (see above), elevated serum insulin (from insulin resistance), and dietary goitrogens (such as soy).  For more on this subject, refer to my articles on Thyroid Imbalance and Thyroid Function (links are to my old iWeb site). < update links when move to Cat’s Kitchen

Xenoestrogens

Many industrial pollutants can mimic estrogens in the body, and this problem has been linked to many cancers.  But they can also lead to hormone imbalances that can affect weight control.  Thyroid and insulin are not the only hormones that can affect weight.  Testosterone, DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, and cortisol all play a role.  Keeping your weight at a healthy level requires a delicate balance between all of these hormones.  If the balance gets tipped in any direction, weight gain (or difficulty in losing weight) can result.  Xenoestrogens can tip the balance in an unfavorable way.

For more on this subject, refer to my articles on Estrogen Dominance and Female Hormones (links are to my old iWeb site).< update links when move to Cat’s Kitchen

Gut Flora Connection

Emerging research indicates that your gut microbiome (the bugs in your gut) have a lot to say about whether or not you are obese.  

  • Fatty Liver:

Researchers studying the condition known as fatty liver, have discovered a normal bacterial resident of the small intestine that, when present in excess amounts (dysbiosis), robs the body of needed choline, a substance essential to proper fat metabolism in the liver.  Without the choline, the liver cannot burn excess calories by converting them to bile salts and flushing out through the colon.  Instead, the liver sends some of the calories to the adipose tissue for storage as body fat, and the rest is retained as fat in the liver.  This is a common condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver (NAFLD).

It is important to note that it isn’t just excess dietary FAT that is stored, but more likely excess dietary SUGARS (and carbs) that are converted to fat in the liver.

  • Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) bacteria:

Researchers in Finland (7) have discovered a link between excess S. aureus bacteria in the gut of babies, and obesity.  That is, babies who had higher levels of bifidobacteria and lower levels of S. aureus appeared to be protected from excess weight gain.  While this research studied babies, the same effect could also be true for other ages.

The researchers hypothesize that S. aureus causes low-grade inflammation in the body, which could lead to inflammation.

  • Probiotic bacteria better absorption of nutrients

Recent studies (2008) with mice and humans indicate that when probiotic bacteria digest fibers, converting them to short-chain fatty acids, they have an effect on human body weight.  It appears that these fatty acids activate a receptor (Gpr41) in the intestinal lining, that in turn slows the movement of digesting food (chyme) through the digestive tract, allowing more nutrients to be absorbed.  This generally results in healthy weight gain.

It is important to note that this weight gain does not necessarily lead to obesity.  Rather, if needed nutrients simply pass through our gut without being absorbed, we become malnourished, and the body goes into starvation mode, which may result in unhealthy weight gain. (8)

Industrial and Automobile Pollution

Cars and industry pump tons of pollution into our air, water and soil each year.  Much of the focus on the ill effects of this pollution has been on cancer; specifically the so-called xenoestrogens (environmental pollutants with estrogen-like activity). 

But there are other effects as well.  Heavy metals are an especially troubling pollutant because of their toxicity to the vital organs of the body, including the endocrine system, that impact body weight.

Toxic Heavy Metals

Lets look at just two of these:  mercury and arsenic, as they are the most likely to cause weight problems.

Mercury is present in dental amalgams (silver fillings); vaccines; fish; fluorescent light bulbs; mercury thermometers; mercury-contaminated water and rain; ammunition and explosives; treatment of leather and furs; exterior and marine paints.  A major worldwide contributor to mercury pollution is the emissions of coal-burning power plants.

Toxic mercury is a known cause of hypothyroidism, or reduced thyroid function, which can lead to weight gain, as the body’s metabolic rate slows down. See Thyroid and Other Endocrine Imbalances, below, for more.

Arsenic is present in pesticides and rat poison; lead-acid auto batteries; arsenic-treated woods and cotton; arsenic-contaminated water, such as from mining; coal-fired power plants and incinerators; chemical weapons; fish and shellfish.

Toxic arsenic exerts a potent adverse effect on the endocrine system, leading to problems such as vascular and heart disease, diabetes, reproductive and developmental problems, and a wide variety of cancers. It accomplishes all this by affecting hormone receptors including:  sex hormone, glucocorticoid, mineral corticoid, retinoic acid and thyroid hormone receptors. (4)

By affecting metabolic rate (thyroid hormone disruption) and sugar metabolism (glucocorticoid disruption), arsenic can adversely affect weight control.

References:

Note: the numbers in parenthesis are the reference numbers in my original article (on old iWeb site). When I moved and updated the article to this Cat’s Kitchen version, I reorganized references on the same site (such as Mercola) to be together (as 2A, 2B, etc.. Those added since that reorganization say “new” in the parenthesis.

  1. realmilk.com/moreraw.html
  2. Mercola:
    1. (2) mercola.com/2003/feb/5/calcium_weight_gain.htm
    2. (7) mercola.com/article/insulin.htm
    3. (new) www.mercola.com/2000/jul/30/exercise_insulin.htm
    4. (8) articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2007/10/25/diet-and-fat-a-severe-case-of-mistaken-consensus.aspx moved to articles.mercola.com/obesity.aspx
  3. content.nejm.org/cgi/content/short/354/15/1601 (Trans Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease by D. Mozaffarian, M.D., et. al; New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 354 (15):1601-1613, April 13, 2006)
  4. dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/RSCRge.shtml (link no longer valid)
  5. womentowomen.com/nutritionandweightloss/fatandcholesterol.asp
  6. wisegeek.com/what-is-metabolism.htm
  7. (9) ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/87/3/534 or academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/87/3/534/4633266
  8. (10) sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081018093223.htm 
  9. (11) apha.org/publications/tnh/archives/2008/March08/WebExclusives/SugarWebEx.htm (link no longer valid)
  10. (new) Annals of Internal Medicine (annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1846638)
  11. (new) Medical News Today, March 18, 2014 (medicalnewstoday.com/articles/274166.php)
  12. (new) Wonder Labs (wonderlabs.com/blog/whatever-happened-to-vitamins-b4-b8-b10-and-b11)
  13. BulletProof blog (blog.bulletproof.com/is-saturated-fat-bad/)
  14. NY Times .nytimes.com/2014/03/26/opinion/bittman-butter-is-back.html)

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