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A 10 000 foot view of the obesity epidemic
What is causing the obesity epidemic ?
It is the million dollar question……… and the standard answer is
WE eat TOO MUCH and MOVE TOO LITTLE.
When it comes to “what people are eating TOO MUCH of”, there are two camps.
What are “we” eating TOO MUCH OF ?
The medical establishment, tend to pick on FAT, while the alternative, health camps, of which, I am a card carrying member, tend to pick on CARBS, particularly refined carbs.
But what if “we’re” not seeing THE WOOD, for THE TREES
i.e. “we” are so involved in the details of something, that “we’re’ missing what is important about the thing as a whole.
Maybe it’s time to look at THE BIG PICTURE….
This is what a group of Chinese researchers have done – it makes for some very interesting reading.
The Chinese study
The Chinese team, kicked off their analysis, by looking at what “everyone” in the USA was eating, across time – instead of looking at individuals. In addition, to looking at overall dietary patterns, they also looked at how “fat”, the average American was, across time.
The official name for this type of study is an ecological study.
Scientifically it isn’t the best kind of study to do, because “Mr Average” is a bit of a mythical character. Despite these limitations, ecological studies can point out interesting relationships, which is exactly what this study did.
What it’s NOT …..
First up, the team looked at the average saturated fat consumption, using meat as a proxy.
The little green triangles, show how much meat (i.e. fat), the average American was eating and the blue dots, show how fat (obese) the average American, was. This data, showed that meat (fat) consumption has gone down, significantly – you can see this by the fact that the green line has gotten progressively lower. The graph, confirms that, the anti-fat campaign, has changed the way people eat, but sadly obesity (the blue line), has gone up and up.
It’s NOT the sugar either
Next, the team looked at the consumption of sugar, across time…
In this graph, the sugar is depicted, with little black stars. Sugar consumption certainly has increased, but not really in proportion to obesity, so once more, this doesn’t really look like it explains the phenomenon well.
It’s in THE GRAINS
This leaves us with the last of the set of graphs, which documents, the consumption of grains by the average American.
The white circles, represent grain consumption and the blue dots, obesity.
This graph is really weird – it seems to be telling two stories.
The first thing, it shows is actually a long time ago, people ate a lot more grains than they do today. The amount of grain people ate, decreased, up until the 1970s, when it started to climb. This increase in grain consumption marked the beginning of the “anti-fat” message, which encouraged people to replace meat, with grain.
The funny thing is, that the climb in grain consumption starting in the 1970s, also corresponded with the climb in obesity.
Grains ARE TO BLAME
So if we believe this graph, it would suggest that grains are actually what is causing the obesity problem.
“Fat” and sugar, really don’t seem to be significant.
But grains were not always causing obesity, “something” happened, which created the problem.
The obesity time line examined
The obesity epidemic in America, really kicked off in the 1980s, the numbers of fat Americans, then continued to tick upward, but it has reached a plateau, in the last few years.
The number of Americans being diagnosed with diabetes however continues to rise.
So do the number of Americans being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
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
What happened in the 1970s ?
Agricultural speaking, the 1970s marked the beginning of the green revolution, which saw big advances in agriculture, resulting in improved productivity. This was achieved, through the introduction of new improved variants of maize and other crops, along with widespread us, of 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 catch up – this is one of the reasons, there is still 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
- thiamine (vitamin B1)
- riboflavin (viatmin B2)
- niacin (vitamin B3),
So is there a connection between these vitamins and obesity ?
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 did it, like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, got fatter, while countries that didn’t, appeared to be buck the trend.
Which vitamin is causing the problem ?
Three vitamins, were used in the original fortification programme : niacin, thiamine and riboflavin. Thiamine and riboflavin seem to be innocent bystanders in the story…………
The only one that has got a few black marks against it, is niacin.
Niacin consumption tracks obesity
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…..
Niacin the vitamin
Niacin, is made into NAD+ and NADP+. These act as co-factors, helping to power, a whole bunch of enzymes, particularly enzymes involved in producing energy in the body.
NAD regulates energy metabolism.
It also plays an important role in DNA damage repair and gene expression – it is involved in the process of de-acetylation.
So niacin the vitamin IS A KEEPER !
In fact, it’s so useful……………..
Niacin the drug
Niacin at high doses, is a prescription medication – it is used, to treat patients, battling to keep their cholesterol, in check.
It’s magic……….. it increases the levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL).
That sounds good, so where is the black mark ?
Niacin can lead to diabetes
It doesn’t happen in everyone, but for many people, high doses of niacin, cause them to develop glucose intolerance.
The root of this problem…………insulin resistance.
Being insulin resistant is a big contributor, to acquiring that spare tyre i.e. getting fat, because your body chemistry is stuck….
Storing fat instead of burning fat
Today, niacin is everywhere
Today niacin (vitamin B3) is pretty much everywhere.
- Mother nature puts it in animal products : meat, milk, poultry and fish
- Governments, put it in staple foods, such as wheat flour, maize meal and rice
- 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. Some people are getting 5 x the amount, recommended. And of course, the perfect dose will depend on YOU.
Chemicals are interesting things – there is a dose that is perfect, too little and you have issues, but too much, is also a potentially, serious problem.
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.
is resulting in a bit too much, of this good thing, vitamin B3.
You want less niacin, not more
Cutting back is probably going to be a bit tough since it is everywhere……..
Having said that, don’t purposefully take more.
Don’t supplement and 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.
NOTE : The other way to consume less, is to steer clear of processed foods, especially things that are made with wheat flour and maize meal, since these are the vehicles, most often used, in food fortification programmes.
Excess vitamin intake: An unrecognized risk factor for obesity. World J Diabetes 2014; 5(1): 1-13. Shi-Sheng Zhou & Yiming Zhou.
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