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Why Humans Get Fat & What Can We Do About It

The link between high-sugar, high-calorie ultra-processed junk foods and obesity.

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  Ken Derow                                                                                                                                                                                   

April, 2020

Human beings in very modern times, (especially since 1960), have had a marked and increasing tendency to become fat and eventually obese (over 70% of US adults are overweight and approximately 42% are classified as being obese).1 A very fair question to ponder is, “Why do humans get fat?” Why does the human brain not send an alert, a warning signal, to the mind-body to take action to counter an upward trend in our weight? After all, it is not as though you overeat once or twice or even many times and you wake up one morning and suddenly, you are fat. For most humans who do become fat and obese, it takes years before they reach that bodily state. Why do we so often not take proactive steps to stop an increase in weight before we become obese, while the problem is, for most people, still very manageable and not too difficult to remedy. That is, why do we typically not become alarmed enough to act before the problem feels so overwhelming and so intractable. Or, in those cases where we do take actual steps to lose weight, why do those steps so often fail, at least over the long-run?

The answer, when articulated sounds so simple, yet, it is much less simple than it might first appear to be. We do not respond to counteract a sustained rise in our weight, primarily because the human brain does not view an increase in our weight, even a large and sustained increase, as being an existential threat to our survival. The brain does not perceive that a countervailing response is needed. An important part of the new theses being proposed, is that, quite to the contrary, rather than being alarmed, our mind-body is actually reassured, comforted and calmed by weight gain, and the subsequent increase in body fat that comes as a result of an increase in weight. Of course, for most of us, in the neocortex-based conscious part of our brain, we may feel some concern, sometimes even a great deal of concern may be registered. But, in our brain stem, the most ancient and deeply unconscious part of our brain, the reaction is quite different, more sanguine and even welcoming. Few of us have the awareness, mental resources or wherewithal to counter the pervasive and powerful influence of our unconscious self.

In the days of our pre-human, hominid ancestors, (about 3 million to 200,000 years ago) and through the hunter-gatherer stage of Homo sapiens (200,000 years ago until the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago), the brain perceived a buffer of fat as a highly desirable survival mechanism and, in fact, it was. The human brain evolved in an environment that was often, sometimes quite unpredictably, faced with a scarcity of available energy sources (i.e., food was scarce). As such, for the human and prehuman brain, the prevailing challenge was not how to handle too much food, but rather too little, and, not how to deal with gaining unwanted and unhealthy weight, but how to maintain enough weight so that we would not starve to death. For 99.97% of humans’ existence,2 the food environment was one of scarcity, not abundance, or, at the very least, scarcity was always a constant and very real threat.  Simply put, for early humans, “Fat = Survival.”

To respond to this environment of food scarcity, our brain’s evolutionarily-adaptive solution was multifaceted. When food was abundant, like after killing a large animal, people were driven to gorge themselves, as the next kill was uncertain and might take a long time to accomplish. Also, our instincts evolved to drive us to seek out and consume the foods with the highest perceived energy content (i.e., the most calories), and/or the foods that are the most readily and rapidly converted by the body into the form of fuel that it can best metabolize and needs to survive. This is especially true for the brain, which gets its energy from glucose, and, the most usable and rapidly convertible form of glucose is derived from sugary foods.  As the brain has no capability to store glucose and draw on it as needed, it must receive a constant inflow of glucose to survive. So, our instincts lead us to seek and consume highcalorie foods, and foods that contain sugar, these sugary foods are not only high in calories, but, are also readily converted to the type of fuel that the brain uses. 

After the advent of agriculture, farming did start to provide a much more reliable source of food which could further be supplemented by killing wild animals for extra protein, fat and calories. Even so, until about 60 years ago, the rate of obesity in the United States was quite low, only about 13% and even lower in most other countries. Contrast this to now in the US, in 2020, when over 70% of adults are overweight and about 42% are obese. What happened? What happened is that over this time period, especially in the US, there has been a virtual explosion in the variety and availability of inexpensive ultraprocessed foods. These foods are mostly very sweet, very high-sugar and very high-calorie foods and are often, rightfully, described as “junk foods”. 

These foods are incredibly palatable, with a very pleasurable, typically sweet taste and pleasing mouthfeel, which we humans like and even crave. Ultra-processed foods not only generate a very high level of anticipatory pleasure, they also deliver a very high gustatory pleasure while we are eating them. As a consequence, we eat a lot of these foods and also, for many of us, we overeat them as well. These foods are often eaten past the point where we typically experience satiety, a point where we usually lose interest in food and consequently stop eating.  Of course, when we keep eating after our hunger is satisfied, then we are consuming more calories than our body needs to fuel itself and the extra calories are stored as fat. Do this often enough and you will gain weight and over time likely become fat and obese.  

This relationship between ultra-processed foods, weight gain and obesity is not original thinking on my part. This process is well known, and eminent medical and nutrition experts, like Yale University’s Dr. David Katz, have repeated this thesis for some years, citing it as a highly important factor in explaining the rapid rise in obesity. What is new, and what is being proposed, is that it is not only the extremely high palatability and sugary-sweetness of ultra-processed foods that is driving us to overeat them, with consequent weight gain and subsequent obesity, there is more to the story than this. This new thesis articulates what might be termed a “missing link” in our understanding of what causes obesity and how ultra-processed foods relate to this.

The hypothesis is that the human body has an internal mechanism that tries to maintain a constant homeostatic state along many different dimensions. One of these dimensions is that our mind-body strives to counter a deficiency, or an inadequacy, in our level of different micronutrients, like essential vitamins and minerals.3 These are micronutrients necessary to a well-functioning and healthy mindbody, and, if too deficient, can even threaten one’s survival.4 Even in the United States, a significant percentage of adults have a deficiency, or inadequacy, in a number of vitamins and minerals. While outright vitamin or mineral deficiencies are not highly common in the United States,5 31% of the population is deficient in 1 or more vitamins or minerals but, micronutrient levels below the recommended RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) or EAR (Estimated Average Requirement) occur much more frequently. Among the US adult population, dietary intake below the EAR for some common micronutrients is actually quite high, e.g.: Vitamin D, 95%;  E, 94%; Magnesium, 61%; A, 51%; Calcium, 49% and Vitamin C, 43%.6 Further, a very high intake of added sugars (defined as 25%+ of total calories), is associated with a lower intake of essential micronutrients, especially vitamins A, C and the mineral magnesium and ultra-processed foods are notably very high in sugar.

So how is this connected to the ubiquitous presence and ready availability of ultra-processed foods?  The problem occurs when the mind-body tries to self-correct for a vitamin/mineral micronutrient deficiency, by consuming mostly ultra-processed foods. These are foods that are nutrient-light, but, also very calorie-heavy. Of course some ultra-processed foods like milk and cereal are vitamin/mineral fortified, but, their very high sugar level, e.g., like some heavily sugar-laden granola cereals, still qualify them as “junk food,” although they may not be deficient in vitamins and minerals.

 An awful lot of this ultra-processed “junk food”, must be consumed to derive an equivalent amount of micronutrients as are naturally found in a much smaller quantity of fresh, whole foods like vegetables and fruits. Unfortunately, vegetables, in particular, although a very superior source of nutrients, are also typically foods that most of us find much less palatable. So, they’re much less likely to be eaten in bulk or overeaten and consequently not typically sought by the mind-body to restore itself to a state of vitamin/mineral homeostasis.

The consequence of all of this is that in when we try to restore the body to a state of homeostatic equilibrium in essential micronutrient levels, by consuming mostly ultra-processed foods, we need to eat a lot of these foods to get enough of the vitamins/minerals our body needs. Over time, this leads to weight gain, and, for many, eventual obesity. Some nutrition pundit once described Americans as being “over-fed and under-nourished” and there is still much truth to this today. Our evolutionary instincts that served us, helped us, so well to survive and thrive for 99.9997% of human existence,7 have been distorted by a modern environment filled with an over-abundance of inexpensive, highly palatable foods that are very high in calories, but, low in micronutrients. This is an environment that our brains have not experienced for a long enough time to adapt to, and might not adapt to even over a very long period of time. As described earlier in this article, our brains do not perceive this environment as posing a specific, immediate and grave threat to our survival, so it does not respond to it as something that requires attention (at least, for many of us, not before the social and/or negative health consequences have become so undeniable that our brains’ finally signal an alarm and “call for action”).

There just may be an unbelievably easy, partial solution to this dilemma. The thesis just articulated about the connection between the mind-body’s striving to maintain a micronutrient homeostasis was discussed with world-renowned nutrition and obesity expert, the aforementioned, Dr. David Katz. He mused that if these hypotheses were correct, would it not be true that taking a supplement, designed to correct a deficiency in certain essential vitamins and minerals, would help to “solve” this conundrum. A search of available research was undertaken and found, that although relevant documented evidence and data is scant, the data that does exist is very consistent and supportive of this thesis. 

Data shows that the US Caucasian population is much more likely to be a regular user of vitamin/mineral supplements (58%), than are the Black (41%) and Hispanic (38%) populations in this country,8 but, are also significantly less likely to be obese (37%, versus 50%-Black, 45%-Hispanic).9 Overall, for adults in the US, ultra-processed foods, on average, account for a hefty 58% of total daily calorie intake.10 This daily ultra-processed calorie intake is highest among Black Americans (62%), younger adults (20-39), excluding children (60%), less educated adults, High School or less (60%) and lower income households (61%).10 So, we Americans are regularly consuming a lot of ultra-processed foods.

The data that has been uncovered so far, is consistent with the hypotheses proposed, but, there is one possible confounding factor that needs to be resolved. It is also true that the Caucasian population is more highly educated and higher income, and these are characteristics that are associated with people who tend to be more health conscious and nutrition-aware than average. The influence of this factor may obscure the real impact of vitamin/mineral supplementation on the likelihood to become obese.

This possible confounding factor can readily be determined by research via a clinical trial designed for this purpose. A double-blind clinical trial could be conducted among a carefully screened  group of nonsupplement users, divided up into a test cell that would take a daily pill containing an array of bioavailable vitamin/minerals, and a control cell taking a pill identical in appearance, but, metabolically inert.  This research could determine whether or not taking a supplement leads to weight loss, and ultimately, at least among those deficient in certain vitamins/minerals, deters obesity. 

If this thesis were to be validated, then the potential benefits and aid to an increasingly obese world, from taking a vitamin/mineral supplement, could be highly significant. Clearly, finding out if these ideas are valid seems to be a very worthy goal, as they might aid a significant proportion of the obese population in the US and around the world. By way of this article the author, Ken Derow, is reaching out to the federal government to fund a clinical trial to ascertain if these hypotheses are valid or not. If these premises are valid, the cost of the trial would be absolutely trivial and minuscule compared to the potential benefits to a huge and growing contingent of weight-challenged people in the United States and, indeed, throughout the entire world.

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