The obesity epidemic in America really kicked off in the 1980s, the numbers of fat Americans continued to tick upward but it appears to have reached a plateau in the last few years. The number of Americans being diagnosed with diabetes however continues to rise.
The rest of the world has joined the party, so today the problem is not restricted to the developed world, but is global phenomenon affecting both developed and developing countries. In a recent survey, South Africa which is where I live, came in third in the obesity stakes. And both China and India are battling obesity and diabetes epidemics.
Based on the Chinese ecological study, the problem began in the 1970s and has something to do with grain consumption.
This must be the next question – what changed ?
Agricultural speaking, the 1970s marked the beginning of the green revolution, which saw big advances in agriculture improving productivity. New improved variants of maize and other crops were grown along with chemical fertilizers.
Although the green revolution was spearheaded by American scientists, the uptake of the technology was pretty much universal. The face of agriculture changed globally in the 1970s. The only exception to this, was the continent of Africa as a whole, which to date, still hasn’t quite managed to step up to the plate – this is the fundamental reason there is so much hunger in Africa.
But another “innovation” also happened to grains during this time period, 1974 to be precise. Authorities in the USA began adding extra vitamins to the flour. The motivation was to stop vitamin B deficiency which causes a very nasty disease called Pellagra. The vitamins that they added were from the vitamin B family and included niacin (vitamin B3), riboflavin and thiamine.
So is there a connection between these vitamins and obesity
Yup. If we look at the graphs in the Chinese study we find that the amount of niacin (vitamin B3) the average American consumes, the white dots, sort of follows those obesity dots (blue).
Freaky ! But it could be co-incidence. However, there are a few things that add weight to the argument.
Timing of obesity epidemic
The developing world, followed the American example, and also added extra vitamins to their grains. Obesity problems seems to track with vitamin B fortification programmes.
Countries who do it, are getting fatter, while countries that don’t, appear to be bucking the trend.
Which vitamin is causing the problem ?
There are three vitamins in the fortification programme, niacin, thiamine and riboflavin.
The only one that has got a few black marks against it, is niacin. Thiamine and riboflavin seem to be innocent bystanders in the story.
Niacin’s “black marks”
Its first persona is as vitamin B3, which plays a very important role in getting the enzymes of the body to work. The way that niacin does this, is it is made into NAD+ and NADP+. NAD+ and NADP+ are co-factors which are required to get a whole bunch of enzymes, particularly enzymes involved in producing energy in the body, to work properly.
But the other face of niacin is as a drug. Doctors sometimes add it to other cholesterol lowering medication to “improve” overall cholesterol levels. High doses of niacin increase the levels of “good” cholesterol.
So what is the black mark ?
High doses of niacin cause glucose intolerance i.e. insulin resistance. This is one of the side effects often encountered by patients taking the drug.
Insulin resistance is the root of the obesity problem
Being insulin resistant is a big contributor to acquiring that spare tyre i.e. getting fat.
And the diabetes (type 2) epidemic which is shadowing the obesity epidemic is caused by insulin resistance. Type 2 diabetes happens because the cells stop listening to the insulin. The body pumps out as much of the stuff as it can, but it just isn’t enough to keep the sugar levels in check.
NOTE : Type 1 diabetes happens because the pancreas stops producing insulin.
Today, niacin is everywhere
When governments introduced the idea of fortification, vitamin B deficiency was common, particularly among poor labourers.
Today niacin (vitamin B3) is pretty much everywhere.
- Mother nature puts it in animal flesh (meat, poultry and fish) and
- “Uncle Sam & Company” put it in flour.
- Thoughtful food company executives, chuck it into processed foods, to improve the nutritional quality and encourage you to buy their brand and
- You also find a hefty dose in your multivitamin.
Add it all up – how much are you taking ?
Officially you need 14-16 mg. The average American is getting 33 mg. You might be getting 5 x the amount.
Chemicals are interesting things – there is a dose that is perfect, too little and you have issues, but too much is also a serious problem.
And of course, the perfect dose will depend on YOU.
So maybe taking……………
- the multi-vitamin supplement loaded with 138 % RDA of vitamin B3 (nicotinamide) ,
- along with the vitamin enriched cereal, providing 20 % RDA
- drowned in vitamin enriched milk
- along with the cold chicken slices (containing natural niacin) squished between
- two slices of bread baked with vitamin enriched flour etc. 5 % RDA
…………. is resulting in a bit too much, of this good thing, vitamin B3.
Cutting back is probably going to be a bit tough since it is everywhere, but don’t fall for the marketing hype and deliberately buy products to which it has been added, believing you are getting extra value for your money. You may be buying extra kilograms around your middle.B vitamin consumption and the prevelence of diabetes and obesity among the US adults : Population based ecological study. BMC Public Health (2010) 10:746. S. Zhou, D Li, Y. Zhou, W. Sun, Q. Liu.
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