Monday, January 30, 2012

Paleo Diet Article in Sound Consumer

I recently wrote an article for my local natural foods grocery store, PCC, about the "Paleolithic" diet.  You can read it online here.  I explain the basic rationale for Paleo diets, some of the scientific support behind it, and how it can be helpful for people with certain health problems.  I focused in particular on the research of Dr. Staffan Lindeberg at the University of Lund, who has studied non-industrial populations using modern medical techniques and also conducted clinical diet trials using the Paleo diet.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Insulin and Obesity: Another Nail in the Coffin

There are several versions of the insulin hypothesis of obesity, but the versions that are most visible to the public generally state that elevated circulating insulin (whether acute or chronic) increases body fatness.  Some versions invoke insulin's effects on fat tissue, others its effects in the brain.  This idea has been used to explain why low-carbohydrate and low-glycemic-index diets can lead to weight loss (although frankly, glycemic index per se doesn't seem to have much if any impact on body weight in controlled trials). 

I have explained in various posts why this idea does not appear to be correct (1, 2, 3), and why, after extensive research, the insulin hypothesis of obesity lost steam by the late 1980s.  However, I recently came across two experiments that tested the hypothesis as directly as it can be tested-- by chronically increasing circulating insulin in animals and measuring food intake and body weight and/or body fatness.  If the hypothesis is correct, these animals should gain fat, and perhaps eat more as well. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

What Causes Insulin Resistance? Part VII

In previous posts, I outlined the factors I'm aware of that can contribute to insulin resistance.  In this post, first I'll list the factors, then I'll provide my opinion of effective strategies for preventing and potentially reversing insulin resistance.

The factors

These are the factors I'm aware of that can contribute to insulin resistance, listed in approximate order of importance.  I could be quite wrong about the order-- this is just my best guess. Many of these factors are intertwined with one another. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Three Announcements

Chris Highcock of the blog Conditioning Research just published a book called Hillfit, which is a conditioning book targeted at hikers/backpackers.  He uses his knowledge and experience in hiking and conditioning to argue that strength training is an important part of conditioning for hiking.  I'm also a hiker/backpacker myself here in the rugged and beautiful Pacific Northwest, and I also find that strength training helps with climbing big hills, and walking farther and more easily with a lower risk of injury.

Richard Nikoley of the blog Free the Animal has also published a book called Free the Animal: Beyond the Blog, where he shares his strategies for losing fat and improving health and fitness.  I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but Richard has a reasonable perspective on diet/health and a sharp wit. 

Also, my friend Pedro Bastos has asked me to announce a one-day seminar at the University of Lisbon (Portugal) by Dr. Frits Muskiet titled "Vitamins and Minerals: A Scientific, Modern, Evolutionary and Global View".  It will be on Sunday, Feb 5-- you can find more details about the seminar here.  Dr. Muskiet is a researcher at the Groningen University Medical Center in the Netherlands.  He studies the impact of nutrients, particularly fatty acids, on health, from an evolutionary perspective.  Wish I could attend. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What Causes Insulin Resistance? Part VI

In this post, I'll explore a few miscellaneous factors that can contribute to insulin resistance: smoking, glucocorticoids/stress, cooking temperature, age, genetics and low birth weight.


Smoking tobacco acutely and chronically reduces insulin sensitivity (1, 2, 3), possibly via:
  1. Increased inflammation
  2. Increased circulating free fatty acids (4)
Paradoxically, since smoking also protects against fat gain, in the very long term it may not produce as much insulin resistance as one would otherwise expect.  Diabetes risk is greatly elevated in the three years following smoking cessation (5), and this is likely due to the fat gain that occurs.  This is not a good excuse to keep smoking, because smoking tobacco is one of the most unhealthy things you can possibly do.  But it is a good reason to tighten up your diet and lifestyle after quitting.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What Causes Insulin Resistance? Part V

Previously in this series, we've discussed the role of cellular energy excess, inflammation, brain insulin resistance, and micronutrient status in insulin resistance.  In this post, I'll explore the role of macronutrients and sugar in insulin sensitivity.

Carbohydrate and Fat

There are a number of studies on the effect of carbohydrate:fat ratios on insulin sensitivity, but many of them are confounded by fat loss (e.g., low-carbohydrate and low-fat weight loss studies), which almost invariably improves insulin sensitivity.  What interests me the most is to understand what effect different carbohydrate:fat ratios have on insulin sensitivity in healthy, weight stable people.  This will get at what causes insulin resistance in someone who does not already have it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New Obesity Review Paper by Yours Truly

The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism just published a clinical review paper written by myself and my mentor Dr. Mike Schwartz, titled "Regulation of Food Intake, Energy Balance, and Body Fat Mass: Implications for the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Obesity" (1).  JCEM is one of the most cited peer-reviewed journals in the fields of endocrinology, obesity and diabetes, and I'm very pleased that it spans the gap between scientists and physicians.  Our paper takes a fresh and up-to-date look at the mechanisms by which food intake and body fat mass are regulated by the body, and how these mechanisms are altered in obesity.  We explain the obesity epidemic in terms of the mismatch between our genes and our current environment, a theme that is frequently invoked in ancestral health circles.

Monday, January 9, 2012

What Causes Insulin Resistance? Part IV

So far, we've explored three interlinked causes of insulin resistance: cellular energy excess, inflammation, and insulin resistance in the brain.  In this post, I'll explore the effects on micronutrient status on insulin sensitivity.

Micronutrient Status

There is a large body of literature on the effects of nutrient intake/status on insulin action, and it's not my field, so I don't intend this to be a comprehensive post.  My intention is simply to demonstrate that it's important, and highlight a few major factors I'm aware of.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What Causes Insulin Resistance? Part III

As discussed in previous posts, cellular energy excess and inflammation are two important and interlinked causes of insulin resistance.  Continuing our exploration of insulin resistance, let's turn our attention to the brain.

The brain influences every tissue in the body, in many instances managing tissue processes to react to changing environmental or internal conditions.  It is intimately involved in insulin signaling in various tissues, for example by:
  • regulating insulin secretion by the pancreas (1)
  • regulating glucose absorption by tissues in response to insulin (2)
  • regulating the suppression of glucose production by the liver in response to insulin (3)
  • regulating the trafficking of fatty acids in and out of fat cells in response to insulin (4, 5)
Because of its important role in insulin signaling, the brain is a candidate mechanism of insulin resistance.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

What Causes Insulin Resistance? Part II

In the last post, I described how cellular energy excess causes insulin resistance, and how this is triggered by whole-body energy imbalance.  In this post, I'll describe another major cause of insulin resistance: inflammation. 


In 1876, a German physician named W Ebstein reported that high doses of sodium salicylate could totally eliminate the signs and symptoms of diabetes in certain patients (Berliner Klinische Wochenschrift. 13:337. 1876). Following up on this work in 1901, the British physician RT Williamson reported that treating diabetic patients with sodium salicylate caused a striking decrease in the amount of glucose contained in the patients' urine, also indicating an apparent improvement in diabetes (2).  This effect was essentially forgotten until 1957, when it was rediscovered.

Friday, January 6, 2012

What Causes Insulin Resistance? Part I

Insulin is an ancient hormone that influences many processes in the body.  Its main role is to manage circulating concentrations of nutrients (principally glucose and fatty acids, the body's two main fuels), keeping them within a fairly narrow range*.  It does this by encouraging the transport of nutrients into cells from the circulation, and discouraging the export of nutrients out of storage sites, in response to an increase in circulating nutrients (glucose or fatty acids). It therefore operates a negative feedback loop that constrains circulating nutrient concentrations.  It also has many other functions that are tissue-specific.

Insulin resistance is a state in which cells lose sensitivity to the effects of insulin, eventually leading to a diminished ability to control circulating nutrients (glucose and fatty acids).  It is a major contributor to diabetes risk, and probably a contributor to the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and a number of other disorders. 

Why is it important to manage the concentration of circulating nutrients to keep them within a narrow range?  The answer to that question is the crux of this post. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New York Times Magazine Article on Obesity

For those of you who haven't seen it, Tara Parker-Pope write a nice article on obesity in the latest issue of NY Times Magazine (1).  She discusses  research showing  that the body "resists" fat loss attempts, making it difficult to lose fat and maintain fat loss once obesity is established.

Monday, January 2, 2012

High-Fat Diets, Obesity and Brain Damage

Many of you have probably heard the news this week:

High-fat diet may damage the brain
Eating a high-fat diet may rapidly injure brain cells
High fat diet injures the brain
Brain injury from high-fat foods

Your brain cells are exploding with every bite of butter!  Just kidding.  The study in question is titled "Obesity is Associated with Hypothalamic Injury in Rodents and Humans", by Dr. Josh Thaler and colleagues, with my mentor Dr. Mike Schwartz as senior author (1).  We collaborated with the labs of Drs. Tamas Horvath and Matthias Tschop.  I'm fourth author on the paper, so let me explain what we found and why it's important.  

The Questions

Among the many questions that interest obesity researchers, two stand out:
  1. What causes obesity?
  2. Once obesity is established, why is it so difficult to treat?
Our study expands on the efforts of many other labs to answer the first question, and takes a stab at the second one as well.  Dr. Licio Velloso and collaborators were the first to show in 2005 that inflammation in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus contributes to the development of obesity in rodents (2), and this has been independently confirmed several times since then.  The hypothalamus is an important brain region for the regulation of body fatness, and inflammation keeps it from doing its job correctly.

The Findings

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Junk Free January

Last year, Matt Lentzner organized a project called Gluten Free January, in which 546 people from around the world gave up gluten for one month.  The results were striking: a surprisingly large proportion of participants lost weight, experienced improved energy, better digestion and other benefits (1, 2).  This January, Lentzner organized a similar project called Junk Free January.  Participants can choose between four different diet styles:
  1. Gluten free
  2. Seed oil free (soybean, sunflower, corn oil, etc.)
  3. Sugar free
  4. Gluten, seed oil and sugar free
Wheat, seed oils and added sugar are three factors that, in my opinion, are probably linked to the modern "diseases of affluence" such as obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease.  This is particularly true if the wheat is eaten in the form of white flour products, and the seed oils are industrially refined and used in high-heat cooking applications.

If you've been waiting for an excuse to improve your diet, why not join Junk Free January?