Thursday, June 28, 2012

New Study: Is a Calorie a Calorie?

A new study in JAMA led by Dr. Cara B. Ebbeling and colleagues purports to challenge the idea that all calories are equally fattening (1).  Let's have a look.  When thinking about the role of calorie intake in body fatness, there are basically three camps:

1.    Calories don’t matter at all, only diet composition matters.
2.    Calories are the only thing that matters, and diet composition is irrelevant.
3.    Calories matter, but diet composition may also play a role.

The first one is an odd position that is not very well populated.  The second one has a lot of adherents in the research world, and there’s enough evidence to make a good case for it.  It’s represented by the phrase ‘a calorie is a calorie’, i.e. all calories are equally fattening.  #1 and #2 are both extreme positions, and as such they get a lot of attention.  But the third group, although less vocal, may be closest to the truth. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

What Puts Fat Into Fat Cells, and What Takes it Out?

Body fatness at its most basic level is determined by the rate of fat going into vs. out of fat cells. This in/out cycle occurs regardless of conditions outside the cell, but the balance between in and out is influenced by a variety of external factors.  One of the arguments that has been made in the popular media about obesity goes something like this:  

A number of factors can promote the release of fat from fat cells, including:
Epinephrine, norepinephrine, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), glucagon, thyroid-stimulating hormone, melanocyte-stimulating hormone, vasopressin, and growth hormone
 But only two promote fat storage:
Insulin, and acylation-stimulating protein (ASP)*
Therefore if we want to understand body fat accumulation, we should focus on the latter category, because that's what puts fat inside fat cells.  Simple, right?

Can you spot the logical error in this argument?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Pressure Cooker for the 21st Century

Pressure cookers are an extremely useful kitchen tool.  They greatly speed cooking and reduce energy usage by up to 70 percent.  This is because as pressure increases, so does the boiling point of water, which is the factor that limits cooking speed in water-containing foods (most foods).  If it weren't for my pressure cooker, I'd rarely eat beets or globe artichokes.  Instead of baking, boiling or steaming these for 60-90 minutes, I can have them soft as butter in 30.  But let's face it: most people are intimidated by pressure cookers.  They fear the sounds, the hot steam, and the perceived risk of explosion.  I escaped this because I grew up around them.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

New Study Demonstrates that Sugar has to be Palatable to be Fattening in Mice

Dr. Anthony Sclafani's research group just published a study definitively demonstrating that high palatability, or pleasantness of taste, is required for sugar to be fattening in mice (1).  Dr. John Glendinning was lead author. Dr. Sclafani's group has done a lot of excellent research over the years.  Among other things, he's the person who invented the most fattening rodent diet in the world-- the 'cafeteria diet'-- composed of human junk food. 

Mice and rats love sweet food and drinks, just like humans.  If you give them a choice between plain water and sugar water, they'll overconsume the sugar water and become obese.  I have argued, based on a large body of evidence, that the reward value and palatability* of these solutions are important to this process (2, 3, 4).  This is really just common sense honestly, because by definition if the solution weren't rewarding the mice wouldn't go out of their way to drink it instead of water, the same way people wouldn't go out of their way to get soda if it weren't rewarding.  But it's always best to confirm common sense with research.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Sugar Intake and Body Fatness in Non-industrial Cultures

Around the world, non-industrial cultures following an ancestral diet and lifestyle tend to be lean. When they transition a modern diet and lifestyle, they typically put on body fat and develop the classic "diseases of civilization" such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  If we can understand the reasons why this health transition occurs, we will understand why these problems afflict us today.  Research has already identified a number of important factors, but today I'm going to discuss one in particular that has received a lot of attention lately: sugar.

There's an idea currently circulating that sugar is the main reason why healthy traditional cultures end up obese and sick.  It’s easy to find non-industrial cultures that are lean and don’t eat much sugar, and it’s easy to find industrial cultures that are obese and eat a lot of it.  But many factors are changing simultaneously there.  We could use the same examples to demonstrate that blue jeans and hair gel cause obesity.  If sugar is truly the important factor, then cultures with a high sugar intake, but an otherwise ancestral diet and lifestyle, should also be overweight and sick.  Let’s see if that's true. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Calories Still Matter

The Centers for Disease Control's NHANES surveys documented a massive increase in obesity in the United States between the 1960-62 and 2007-2008 survey periods (1).  In 1960, 13 percent of US adults were obese, while in 2008 that number had risen to 34 percent.  The prevalence of extreme obesity increased from 0.9 to 6.0 percent over the same time period!

Something has changed, but what?  Well, the most parsimonious explanation is that we're simply eating more.  Here is a graph I created of our calorie intake (green) overlaid on a graph of obesity prevalence (blue) between 1970 and 2008: