Obesity News Epidemic

obese-overweightWe all know we’re all getting fatter, don’t we? Obesity has become the latest plague of the developed world. And, body mass index has become the vital statistic your GP is most interested.

Well, I’ve actually lost a few pounds from my Adonis-like physique* over the last few months, it must be the daily dog walking. Nevertheless, my BMI is high, but then so is that of at least half of the England rugby team – it’s big bones and muscular hypertrophy that do it. You cannot visit a health-related website or pick up a medical newsfeed these days without seeing some bizarre news related to obesity and overweight. [*Yeah, right!]

The research results are often contradictory, one day we’re told it is high saturated fat content that we must worry about. The next we hear that Gary Taubes has resurrected almost forgotten research that suggests carbohydrates are to blame for boosting insulin production and it is high insulin levels that make us fat. It sounds like a 1950s notion, too many potatoes will make you fat, but he could have a point. The link between insulin and obesity is very strong, but does one cause the other or do they operate synergistically to the detriment of our health. Who knows? Certainly not the headline writers were see, as I say apparently contradictory and at best confusing statements day in, day out.

  • Study firmly links obesity, cancer
  • Diabetes up amid rising obesity
  • Obesity ‘fuels cancer in women’
  • Obesity ‘epidemic’ turns global
  • Obesity May Be Protective in Progressive Prostate Cancer
  • Obesity and overweight linked to higher prostate cancer mortality
  • Little bit of fat not so bad: new study
  • Diabetes up amid rising obesity
  • Obesity ‘not individuals’ fault’
  • Gyms ‘little help’ in obesity
  • Inflammation, Not Obesity, Cause Of Insulin Resistance
  • Study finds some overweight people live longer
  • Little extra weight may not be bad

That’s just an almost random sample from this week’s news. But, the message is clear – we don’t really know what’s going on. The conventional wisdom has it that the more calories you take in and the fewer you use, the more overweight you will become. But, the type of calories do matter, as Taubes points out, we don’t tend to talk about middle-aged guys with burger guts, the more usual description of choice is a beer belly. The calorific content of beer, of course, arising from carbohydrates as opposed to fat.

There are also issues with the public health statements that tell us to reduce our saturated fat intake and to keep our (bad) cholesterol levels low. But, did you know there isn’t just one form of low-density lipoprotein, there are two – a dense form and a diffuse form. New evidence points to the dense form of LDL as being the bad form and not the nice fluffy type, but related research also hints that the presence of cholesterol is not actually a relevant risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It’s the dense LDL itself. So, is there any point your GP measuring your blood cholesterol and putting you on statins? Possibly not.

And, what of the possibilities that obesity is down to genetics, viral infection, bacterial infection, (fungal infection?), hormonal imbalances, pancreatic problems, missing out on breastfeeding as an infant, getting too much breast milk as an infant, a throwback to our grandparents’ diet, an evolutionary aberration, too much TV, not enough sleep, too much carbohydrate, too much protein, too much fat, too little exercise, too much walking and not enough running…

Taubes comes to 11 critical conclusions in Good Calories, Bad Calories, based on substantial literature research and interviews, summarised below:

  1. Dietary fat does not cause heart disease
  2. Carbohydrates do, because of their effect on insulin
  3. Sugars are particularly harmful
  4. Refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugars are the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, and the other common chronic diseases
  5. Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating and not sedentary behaviour
  6. Consuming excess calories does not make us fatter any more than it makes a child grow taller
  7. Exercise does not make us lose excess fat; it makes us hungry
  8. We get fat because of an imbalance between hormonal regulation of fat tissue and fat metabolism.
  9. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage
  10. Carbohydrates make us fat by stimulating insulin secretion
  11. The fewer carbohydrates we eat, the leaner we will be

Confused? It’s enough to make you head for the donut bar. Or, maybe not. Next week, “Cardiovascular Disease News Epidemic”. Incidentally, I was going to call this post Bingo Wings and Muffin Tops, but thought better of it. You can look up definitions in the Urban Dictionary.

21 thoughts on “Obesity News Epidemic”

  1. Today’s BBC news highlights research showing that falling heart disease mortality rates are levelling off for women under the age of 50 despite medical advances and obesity, diabetes, smoking, and lack of exercise are to blame. So where’s the news Aunty Beeb?


  2. That’s exactly what I was thinking…although I’ll skip the burger and opt for a homemade chicken korma with plenty of rice and naan bread, oh, and a few beers…

  3. Well it comes right back to my initial comment on attitudes. The psychology of obesity is one of the biggest challenges, I think. I also think you’re right in that people don’t always know the difference between complex and simple carbs, as an example. Yet, those who do may still choose the latter. That is where the struggle lies – first getting people to know about good nutrition and then encouraging them to USE what they know on a daily basis.

    Basically, getting people to CARE. But then again, obesity and related health conditions only happen to other people so I suppose I’ll just go back to my burger, chips and chocolate. :p

  4. I guess herein lies the rub – “a diet focused on complex carbs and well selected protein and fat sources” – many people seem unable either to differentiate between simple carbs and complex carbs and so opt more often than not for the simple ones, which are essentially equivalent to eating bowls of sugar. Moreover, how does the lay person determine which protein and fat source they should choose. Fast-food chains pump out propaganda about how good their products actually are, but on the other hand those who opt for oily fish several times a week are then told they may be exposing themselves to accumulated dioxins, mercury, PCBs etc in tuna, shark, salmon etc. There are of course beans and pulses, but if everyone opts for those we’re going to have up pesticide and fertilizer production to keep pace with the massive ensuing demand because current so-called organic approaches would not cope.

  5. See, I don’t think that exercise and eating a healthy, varied diet will ‘mess’ with insulin levels, for the most part (generalizing, of course). Exercise (especially cardiovascular) tends to make insulin pretty darn efficient. If you’re coupling that with a diet focused on complex carbs and well selected protein and fat sources, that in itself can actually correspond with the notion of insulin levels —> obesity, no? What I don’t think is healthy would be to eliminate or limit important food groups with the idea of more is better when it comes to protein (i.e. Atkins).

    I’ll still maintain that it’s a minority who will become obese when eating a healthy, varied diet and exercising regularly.

  6. Mina, totally agree on the exercise, fruit and veg, moderation, and genetics etc, but it seems that from Taubes’ point of view, there is a major factor that is overlooked in most discussion of what causes weight gain and ultimately, obesity, and that is that insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. Mess with your insulin levels and even if you’re exercising well and eating “properly” you could still end up obese.

  7. I’m with Kate on this one. Atkins puts a burden on the kidneys and excludes or limits many nutritious fruits and vegetables. Obesity is complicated – I think most can agree on that but there’s a quote I heard once that I like – ‘Nobody ever got fat from eating too many fruits and vegetables.’ I still think that society makes obesity even MORE complicated than it is. For most people, the basic notions of healthy portion sizes, a range of foods from the food groups (ones you can pronounce!!!!) and regular exercise are sufficient. It’s attitudes that are the biggest challenge.

    Disclaimer: No, I’m not ignoring all of the health conditions that relate to obesity nor am I ignoring a genetic predisposition. I’m talking about what I believe works for weight control in the average person. ;)

  8. Any form of yo-yo dieting whether Atkins or not cannot be good for anyone, that said, if there are toxicity issues with a particular diet then long-term use is inevitably going to cause physiological damage in the long term.

  9. On November 14 Kate said, “The thing is the Atkins diet is dangerous.”

    Indeed it is, for some people. I know a lady who used to be a New York fashion model. She would occasionally use the Atkins diet to drop a few pounds to keep her weight where she wanted it. Unfortunately, her metabolism did not tolerate the low-carb approach very well. Repeated episodes of low-carb dieting almost killed her.

    For many, however, the Atkins diet works quite well. It’s important, then, not to think of the low-carb approach in terms of danger but in terms of its appropriateness.

    Lastly, all “good” diets are rich in supportive nutrients, those chemicals that are needed for proper energy release and body building and tissue repair. The modern foods of commerce don’t seem to meet these requirements.

  10. I’ve read that Professor Dick Jackson, a respected government advisor, has warned that poor urban planning is a root cause. He has indicated that unless steps are taken to provide accessible and usable outdoor spaces then we are headed for an explosion of physical and mental health issues. But I am adivised that the explosion has already started.

  11. Your comments to the effect of “we don’t know what’s going on” are valid. Too many people believe the human body is straight forward and uncomplex. Nothing could be further from the truth. Medical science has only touched the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to understanding the human body. I think there is a lot to be said for a diet that incorporates a wide variety of foods. “Everything in moderation”.

  12. David, genetics indeed has to play a major role in all this. I was listening to an interview with Craig Venter via a Guardian podcast, who pointed out that a decade ago we thought humans differered genetically by a mere 1%, that value has been upgraded to 2-3%. Those could be some serious differences when it comes to the impact of biochemistry on our health.

  13. Probably the reason there is so much apparent uncertainty in nutrition science is because there is so much variability in biochemical and physiological makeup. Consider, for example, cholesterol. High cholesterol is supposed to have an artery clogging effect. Well, not for everyone. About a year ago I got a message from a physician who wrote, “I am an active fit individual who has always exercised and kept my weight optimal but raised on a lot of sugar and fat, in addition to having genetically hi cholesterol regardless of anti cholesterol diet, fibers, and even medicines. My cholesterol gets as high as 430 and is rarely below 280. I am 55 and thought my life expectancy was limited by this but had the CT evaluation and found out that my coronary arteries are completely clear. How could this be? The answer is the power of genetics , that is , the absence of heart disease in my family.”

    There’s wide variability of response to various dietary factors. This makes it extremely difficult to identify those factors responsible for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

    Some people are sensitive to carbohydrate intake others aren’t. Some people thrive on a high-fat/low-carb diet. Others get sick on low carb intake. For more on this, Google “Biochemical Individuality” and learn what my favorite biochemist, Roger J. Williams, has to say about the individual response.

  14. Robert, that was indeed a classic comment, and just to remind readers, this was the gist of your quote: “QUIT STUFFIN’ THAT GARBAGE IN YER FAT YAP AND CUT OUT THE HOOCH AND SMOKES! IT WOULDN’T HURT YA TO GET UP AND TAKE A WALK NOW AND THEN, EITHER!”


  15. In regard to the two forms of LDL, I recall reading something somewhere sometime that the particle sizes of LDL bits was significant in how bad it could be, so there’s another aspect to add to the complexity. Otherwise I’ll stand by my comment to One Burger Could Kill, Apr 23 2007.

  16. Kate, do you have any references to support your assertion. I’m not arguing with it, just thought it would be useful to Sciencebase readers.

    Meanwhile, I really couldn’t see the relevance of the video blog you linked to showing the Elmo robot, so it went the way of spam, I’m afraid. If the site isn’t just a splog with just one post and you think it should be linked somewhere here, please comment again on a more pertinent post.

    Thanks for your interest.


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