Tag Archives: obesity

Stormtroopers Exercise.

Cash 4 Weight Loss programme shown to work and make people excited about exercise

Researchers from the Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and Singapore General Hospital (SGH) have shown that selling rewards to people who are trying to lose weight makes for a very cost-effective way of improving both the magnitude and the duration of their loss.

Stormtroopers Exercise.

Image credits Andrew Martin.

Today’s abundance of food, coupled with the relative lack of physically active jobs, have dramatically increased the prevalence of overweightedness and obesity. With these, the occurrence of non-communicable diseases associated with these two factors — such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or cancer — has also gone up, promoting absenteeism among employees, rising healthcare costs both for the private and public sector, and impacting the quality of life for those affected.

Weighing in

The good news is that weight (in most cases) can be kept in check simply by making healthier food choices and exercising regularly. The bad news is that junk- and fast-food is like catnip for your brain, and it’s also not big on you spending calories. It’s why we feel lazy when we think about exercise, but temptation when thinking about chocolate-covered chocolate. In other words, the effects of jogging will become visible (making you feel good) in time, but eating the whole bucket of ice cream will feel good now. And “now” is a very convincing argument.

In a bid to paint the benefits of long-term health with the bling of short-term temptation, Duke-NSU Professor of Health Services and Systems Research Program Professor Eric Finkelstein and Dr. Kwang Wei Tham from SGH used some tricks from behavioral economics to create and test a Rewards programme which they hope will make people lose weight — and feel good while at it.

Over an eight-month long Trial on Incentives for Obesity (TRIO) held in Singapore, 161 overweight or obese participants paid S$234.00 (US$170.00) to enroll in a 16-week intensive weight loss programme. It required participants to attend weekly sessions at the Lifestyle Improvement and Fitness Enhancement (LIFE) Centre in SGH, where they were taught how to maintain a healthier lifestyle and were encouraged to shed at least 5% of their body weight. They also paid a further S$165.00 (US$119.50) for the Rewards programme.

As part of the Rewards programme, they could earn monthly rewards for meeting monthly weight loss and step goals. These could be either a straight-up cash sum or as a lottery ticket with a one in ten chance of winning 10 times that sum. Additional rewards were offered for reaching the 5% or 8% weight loss goal at months four and eight of the programme. . Participants who were randomized to the control group had their money returned but were ineligible for rewards.

Slimming out

The Reward group had markedly better results than the control participants overall. The average weight loss was as follows (Reward group vs control group):

  • 3.4 kgs vs 1.4 kgs / 7.5 lbs vs 3lbs after the first 4 months, with 40% vs. 12% of participants reaching or surpassing the 5% weight loss mark.
  • 3.3 kgs vs 1.8 kgs (7.3 lbs vs 3.9 lbs) at month 8, with 41% vs 21% participants reaching or surpassing the 5% weight loss mark.
  • 2.3 kgs vs 0.8 kgs / 5 lbs vs 1.75 lbs at month 12, with 28% vs. 17% participants reaching or surpassing the 5% weight loss mark.

Overall, the walked away with a S$225.00 (US162.90) reward — meaning that if this program was founded by an employer, their costs would be around S$60.00 (US$43.50) per participant (rewards minus initial fees). That’s a huge boost to employee’s health, quality of life, and implicitly productivity, for a comparatively minor investment.

It also made a huge difference for the employees. Although only 42% of them made more money than they initially paid, around 80% reported being happy or very happy with the programme — and I dare you to find a gym where 80% of people are enjoying themselves.

“Our findings not only show the value of rewards to increase weight loss and weight loss maintenance, but they show it can be done in a manner that minimizes third party payments, such as those by employers or insurers. This should help to expand access to these types of programmes.” said senior author Dr Finkelstein, a professor in the Duke-NUS Programme for Health Services and Systems Research.

The best part is that over time, that tiny investment on the part of the company can domino into huge savings and quality of life improvements for their workforce. Even small amounts of weight loss, if sustained over time, lead to great health benefits and help prevent chronic disease, meaning less expenditure on health insurance by the company, as well as a happier, healthier employee base to boost productivity.

In the end, everyone wins.

The paper “Applying economic incentives to increase effectiveness of an outpatient weight loss program (TRIO) – A randomized controlled trial” has been published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

How many obese and overweight people are there in the world?

Every 1 in 3 people in the world right now is overweight or obese. We’re way past an obesity epidemic — this is a global pandemic.

Junk food and soda drinks are among the main culprits for the obesity pandemic. Image credits: Peg93.

A big fat problem

Being overweight is one of the worst things you can do to yourself in terms of health. The list of negative effects of those extra pounds is virtually endless, with no aspect being spared.

“People who shrug off weight gain do so at their own risk — risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other life-threatening conditions,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, an author on the study and Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. “Those half-serious New Year’s resolutions to lose weight should become year-round commitments to lose weight and prevent future weight gain.”

Yet the world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis, with more and more people going past the healthy threshold. This is the alarming conclusion of a new report compiled by researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. According to them, over 30% of the planet’s population is overweight, and things are not getting much brighter.

“Since 1980, the prevalence of obesity has doubled in more than 70 countries and has continuously increased in most other countries. Although the prevalence of obesity among children has been lower than that among adults, the rate of increase in childhood obesity in many countries has been greater than the rate of increase in adult obesity,” the study reads.

Researchers analyzed data from 195 countries and territories from 1980 through 2015, based mostly on the most recent Global Burden of Disease study (GBD), a comprehensive regional and global research program of disease burden that assesses mortality and disability from major diseases, injuries, and risk factors — a collaboration of 1,800 researchers from 127 countries.

The research focuses on the so-called body mass index (BMI). The BMI is a value derived from the mass (weight) and height of an individual calculated by dividing the body mass by the square of the body height and is universally expressed in units of kg/m2sorry, Imperial users. It’s not a perfect measure by any means, and it can lead to some significant errors (especially for people with a high muscular mass), but it’s the most common way to measure a person’s (and a population’s) weight health.

Aside from classifying the world’s weight, the new paper also studies the effects of this extra weight, discussing the links between high BMI and cancers of the esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, gallbladder and biliary tract, pancreas, breast, uterus, ovary, kidney, and thyroid, as well as leukemia. Obesity has even been linked with dementia. No fewer than 40 million fatalities are attributed directly to excess body weight in 2015 — and the number of indirect cases is even higher. To make things even more worrying, 40% of these fatalities occurred among people who were considered overweight, but not obese. This raises a huge alarm flag: even if you’re “just” overweight but don’t pass the “obese” threshold doesn’t mean that you’re in the clear.

People are generally considered obese when their body mass index (BMI) is over 30 kg/m2, whereas overweight people have a BMI with the range 25–30 kg/m2. Though some countries (especially in eastern Asia) use different measures, these are the most widely accepted figures. Out of the 2 billion overweight people, 107.7 million children and 603.7 million adults are now obese, with the prevalence doubling in more than 70 countries since 1980. To make things even more concerning, although there are fewer obese children than adults, the prevalence of obesity is increasing faster in children than in adults. Especially in developing countries such as China, Brazil, or Indonesia, there’s been a tripling of obesity rates. In children, obesity is strongly associated with type II diabetes, hypertension, and a swarm of chronic diseases.

But no one came even close to the obesity rates in the US. Despite having a much lower population than countries like China and India, the US hosts the most obese adults: 79.4 million (35% of the population), followed by China with 57.3 million.

Why this is happening, and how we can fight it

There’s really no sugar-coating this, obesity and overweightedness are some of the biggest problems the world is facing right now.

“This re-emphasizes what we already know about the obesity epidemic,” said Goodarz Danaei, assistant professor or global health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But it raises the alarm that we may be facing a wave of obesity in the coming years across high and low income countries.”

We don’t even know how much of a negative effect this will have. Don’t get me wrong, we know it’s a huge problem, but BMI tells you how big you are — not how sick you are. The odds are that if you’re obese you’re also unhealthy, though this is not necessarily the case. You could fare better (or worse) than the average weight you’re at (though again, if you’re overweight or obese, the odds are overwhelmingly not in your favor). This is one of the main limitations of this study, it uses a one-size-fits-all approach which doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Our behaviours are much more important,” Jean-Philippe Chaput, a research scientist at Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group, told Gizmodo. “Many lean people have poor health and many obese people have optimal health. Looking at numbers on a scale is not enough and I would never advise an obese person to lose weight if his blood pressure, glucose levels, mental health, etc. are fine.”

Image via Wikipedia.

Still, even though you may debate the figures from the research, it is clear that the world is getting fatter. Ironically (and depressingly), a big part of the world is suffering from hunger, while another one is getting fatter and fatter. Researchers suggest that the modern lifestyle and the changed in global food environment is the main culprit.

“Changes in the food environment and food systems are probably major drivers,” they write. “Increased availability, accessibility, and affordability of energy dense foods, along with intense marketing of such foods, could explain excess energy intake and weight gain among different populations.”

This means there’s no silver bullet for this issue. There’s no magic solution, no wonder policy, no nothing that can fix everything and make it go away. It’s something each and every one of us must tackle every single day. Eating less junk food, fewer processed meals, more fruits and veggies, and simply cutting down on the portion size is one part of the problem; on the other end, we have to maintain at least a somewhat active lifestyle, avoid sitting all day, walk around, maybe even exercise once or twice a week. You’d be surprised to see just how far that can take but. But this isn’t to say that policy can’t play a role. Having healthy policies that favor quality food and a healthy lifestyle can go a long way, and this is exactly what Murray and his colleagues will focus on.

“Over the next 10 years, we will work closely with the (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) in monitoring and evaluating the progress of countries in controlling overweight and obesity,” he said, adding that his team will share data and findings with scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders seeking evidence-based strategies to address this problem.

Journal Reference: The GBD 2015 Obesity Collaborators. Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity in 195 Countries over 25 Years. The New England Journal of Medicine, June 2017 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1614362


Using public transportation reduces obesity and makes people healthier

It’s pretty clear by now that having a car and driving around in it all day is really unhealthy. A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois found that a robust mass transit system can lead to healthier citizens and help fight obesity.

There’s a strong correlation between people who use public transportation regularly and a reduction in obesity rates. Image credits: Pexels.

Walking is good for you, seriously. We don’t do nearly as much walking as we should, but we do way more sitting than we should and it’s really bad for us. A plethora of studies have shown this, and yet society is in no hurry to change its sitting ways. We sit at work, we sit at home, and we sit while we drive — which is extra bad. For starters, it can be pretty hard to stand or walk while working (especially in jobs which involve computers), and everyone wants to relax while at home. But driving a car can, in many cases, be replaced by walking, cycling, or taking public transportation. This way, you wouldn’t just be taking the healthy route, but you’d cause fewer emissions, help clear out the traffic, and in more cases than not save some money.

This study shows just that. Simply using public transportation (even mass transit) instead of driving makes you healthier and helps fight obesity.

“As local communities seek to allocate public funds to projects that will provide the most benefit to their residents, our research suggests that investing in convenient and affordable public transit systems may improve public health by reducing obesity, thereby providing more value than had been previously thought,” said Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science at Illinois.

Alongside graduate student Zhaowei She and Douglas M. King, a lecturer of industrial and enterprise systems engineering, Jacobson analyzed publicly available data on county health and transportation (2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and transportation data from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey), correlating the two. They controlled for other factors which may affect obesity rates (something which is always a potential source of error), but ended up with a pretty telling result: for every 1 percent increase in a county’s population who frequently ride public transit, obesity rates dropped 0.2 percent. So while the idea that using public transportation reduces obesity is not new, what this study does is that it puts a figure on that idea — and the figure is highly encouraging.

This goes to show that even walking short distances can make a big difference. Walking a couple of small streets might not seem like much, but when you’re not walking at all during the day, it can be pretty important. The average American only takes 5,900 steps a day, which is half of what’s generally recommended.

The study only analyzed the health impact of using public transportation, but the environmental aspect is also significant. Cleaner cities need fewer cars on the road, and that’s exactly what buses, trams, subways, and trains can do. It’s also cheaper than driving around all day.
Journal Reference: Zhaowei She, Douglas M. King, Sheldon H. Jacobson — Analyzing the impact of public transit usage on obesity. DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2017.03.010

Chicken korma shows why we like the food we like

People who carry a particular gene have an increased preference for high fat food, but a decreased preference for sugary foods, a new Cambridge study found. The study is the first one to draw a connection between our genes and food preference and it can also provide insight to obesity.

Photo by Miansari66

Back in the (prehistoric) day, humans lived in extremely different conditions than we do today. Shelter was almost a luxury and food wasn’t readily available. In those days, if you were lucky enough to find some food (some fruit trees or an animal), you would eat as much as you can. Ironically, our brains are wired in much the same way as they were back then – if we start eating, there’s a good chance we eat way more than we need because subconsciously, our brain is trying to stockpile energy. This is why most people find fatty or sugary foods extremely attractive – because they have a lot of embedded energy. This is also why these foods make us fat.

But biology might also play a role in our food preference. In a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Cambridge gave participants an all-you-can-eat buffet of chicken korma – a popular type of curry. They gave participants three curry options, which looked and tasted the same but had different fat contents (20% – low, 40% – medium and 60% – high). The participants tasted from all the three kormas and then ate freely, whatever they wanted.

Researchers then split the participants into three categories: lean, obese, and obese because they have a defect in a gene called MC4R. They found that individuals with defective MC4R ate almost double the amount of high fat korma than lean individuals ate (95%) and even than other obese people (65%). But the surprise came in the next experiment.

In the second part, participants were given Eton mess, a popular desert which includes whipped cream, strawberries, and meringue. Again, the design was similar and the deserts had different sugar contents (8%, 26% and 54%). Paradoxically, the results were the exact opposite of the curry experiment: lean people enjoyed the desert with the most sugar while obese people with a defective MC4R gene preferred the one with the least sugar. People who prefer high-fat foods also prefer low-sugar foods, and people who prefer low-fat foods prefer high-sugar foods. Of course, this is a general correlation, not a fixed rule that applies for everyone.

Professor Sadaf Farooqi, who led the research team, says:

“Our work shows that even if you tightly control the appearance and taste of food, our brains can detect the nutrient content. Most of the time we eat foods that are both high in fat and high in sugar. By carefully testing these nutrients separately in this study, and by testing a relatively rare group of people with the defective MC4R gene, we were able to show that specific brain pathways can modulate food preference.”

She believes that both humans and animals evolved in a way that makes them more resilient to famine, and thus there is a genetic preference for some types of food.

“When there is not much food around, we need energy that can be stored and accessed when needed: fat delivers twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates or protein and can be readily stored in our bodies,” she explains. “As such, having a pathway that tells you to eat more fat at the expense of sugar, which we can only store to a limited extent in the body, would be a very useful way of defending against starvation.”

More experiments are needed to back these conclusions up, but in the meantime, one thing’s for sure: I’d really like to have a chicken korma.

Journal Reference: Agatha A. van der Klaauw, Julia M. Keogh, Elana Henning, Cheryl Stephenson, Sarah Kelway, Victoria M. Trowse, Naresh Subramanian, Stephen O’Rahilly, Paul C. Fletcher, I. Sadaf Farooqi. Divergent effects of central melanocortin signalling on fat and sucrose preference in humans.Nature Communications, 2016; 7: 13055 DOI:10.1038/NCOMMS13055

How the American diet leaves people both overfed and undernourished at the same time

More than half of Americans’ calories come from ultra-processed foods, a new study from the University of São Paulo and Tufts University finds. The data also indicates that close to 90% of total added sugar intake can be traced back to these foodstuffs.

Image via wtsp

Many people nowadays shy away from any “processed” food — but that’s not an inherently evil label. According to FDA regulations, food can only be called fresh when you’ve pulled it out of the ground or off a tree and consume it as is (though washing, coating it or spraying it with pesticides is allowed.) Bread, therefore is a processed food. Frozen peas? Also processed.

However, that is not the level of processing this study is talking about. The researchers defined “ultra-processed” as being:

“Formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.”

Frozen meals, soda, instant noodles or soups obviously fall under this category, but also things you’d usually consider healthy such as breakfast cereal. For the study, the team gathered data from more than 9,000 people aged 1+ years with at least one 24 hours dietary recall through a nationally representative survey.

They found that on average, 57.9 percent of calorie intake could be traced back to ultra-processed foods. Minimally processed or unprocessed foods — meat, plants, eggs, pasta or milk — accounted for 29.6 percent. Processed foods — canned or preserved foods, cheeses — accounted for 9.4 percent. The rest (2.9 percent) were “processed culinary ingredients” such as vegetable oil, table salt, and sugar.

But nearly all the added sugars in the typical American diet, 89.7%, comes from ultra-processed foods. The most recent U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that people get less than 10 percent of their calories from added sugars. In this study, the average was 14 percent—292.2 added sugar calories out of the 2069.5 daily total.

“The risk of exceeding the recommended upper limit of 10 percent energy from added sugars was far higher when ultra-processed food consumption was high,” the researchers write.

As much of the “nutrient-dense foods” are being replaced with what the researchers call ultra-processed sugar bombs, the typical diet leaves people “simultaneously overfed and undernourished.” So you might want to consider cutting down on such items from your shopping list.

Added sugars are one of the main driving forces behind obesity. The World Health Organization has warned that if we don’t cut down on them, we’ll be facing an obesity pandemic pretty soon. The best place to start, the researchers say, are sodas and sugary fruit drinks — as they’re just riddled with sugar.

The full paper, titled “Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study,” has been published online in the journal BMJ Open and can be read here.

Chronic exposure to air pollution makes rats obese

A laboratory study on rats found that the animals that breathed Beijing’s notoriously polluted air gained weight and showed signs of cardio-respiratory and metabolic dysfunctions after three to eight weeks of exposure.

My grandparents live in a small farm in the countryside, and though they’re probably the oldest people I know, they’re in remarkably good shape. Better than me even. My grandma used to say it’s the clean air out there that keeps them healthy, while my grand-dad thought that “all that junk food makes me fat.”

He’s really nice like that. But, as it turns out, he was right — and my grandma more so.

When your Beijing rat-friend comes visiting.
Image via wikipedia

It’s in the air

A Duke University team placed pregnant rats and their offspring in two chambers, one connected to Beijing’s outdoor air and the other receiving filtered air, free of most impurities and pollution particles. After living in these conditions for 19 days, the lungs and livers of pregnant rats exposed to the polluted air were heavier and showed increased tissue inflammation.

The rats had 50 percent higher LDL cholesterol; 46 percent higher triglycerides; 97 percent higher total cholesterol and showed greater insulin resistances (indicative of the early stages of Type 2 diabetes) than their control-group counterparts.

These numbers support the study’s conclusion that city air pollution leads to metabolic dysfunction and fosters obesity. At the end of the eight weeks study period, female and male rats exposed to the pollution were 10 percent and 18 percent heavier, respectively, than those exposed to clean air.

These results were also seen in the rats’ offspring, which were kept in the same chambers as their mothers.

The team also found that the negative effects of pollution were less severe at thee weeks’ exposure than at eight. This suggests that the continuous inflammatory and metabolic changes (and ultimately, the increases in body weight they lead to) seen in the rats requires long-term exposure.

The data is consistent with other studies on the effects of air pollution that report increased oxidative stress and inflammation in the organs and circulatory system; The findings also echo previous studies linking air pollution with increased insulin resistance and altered fat tissue.

“Since chronic inflammation is recognized as a factor contributing to obesity and since metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity are closely related, our findings provide clear evidence that chronic exposure to air pollution increases the risk for developing obesity,” said Junfeng Zhang, a professor of global and environmental health at Duke University and a senior author of the paper.

“If translated and verified in humans, these findings will support the urgent need to reduce air pollution, given the growing burden of obesity in today’s highly polluted world,” Zhang said.

The full paper, titled “Chronic exposure to air pollution particles increases the risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome: findings from a natural experiment in Beijing” has been published online in the journal FASEB and is available here.

distance long

Overweight people judge distances as being farther, making it harder to exercise

Our perception does not always reflect reality, as evidenced by numerous studies. The information sent by the eyes to the brain is processed and contains many short-cuts and assumptions which makes things more optimized, but also leads to biases. One study, for instance, found that people who are overweight will judge an object as being farther than it really is. This suggests that physical characteristics — people who thought they were overweight, but weren’t in fact, did not share this bias — plays a major role in defining perception.

distance long

Image: Pixabay

Sixth-six normal, overweight and obese Walmart shoppers were recruited for the study. They were asked to estimate distances, inclines but also play tennis, golf and virtual tennis.

Everyone estimated distances poorly, but overweight and obese individuals tended to overestimate. Image: Acta Psychologica

Everyone estimated distances poorly, but overweight and obese individuals tended to overestimate. Image: Acta Psychologica

Everyone seemed to judge distances poorly. What was interesting is how the bias was dependent on body weight. While people of normal weight judged distances as being shorter than they really were, overweight individuals perceived objects as being farther than they really were. On average, obese people see distances at least 10% farther than those with an average weight. As for inclines, people of all heights and weight “grossly overestimate” how steep hills are.

The Ebbinghaus illusion (sometimes called the "Titchener illusion") is an optical illusion of relative size perception. The two orange circles are exactly the same size; however, the one on the left seems smaller.  Image: New World Encyclopedia

The Ebbinghaus illusion (sometimes called the “Titchener illusion”) is an optical illusion of relative size perception. The two orange circles are exactly the same size; however, the one on the left seems smaller. Image: New World Encyclopedia

The findings suggest that overweight people “may choose to perform less physically demanding actions not as a result of how they perceive their bodies, but as a result of how they perceive the environment,” the researchers write in the journal Acta PhycologicaThis seems to create a vicious cycle of perception and behaviour.

The other experiments further exemplified how perception affects our ability to act. When the researchers used a Ebbinghaus illusion to make a golf course hole seem smaller, participants performed worse and, conversely, when the illusion made the hole seem bigger performed better. A virtual tennis ball was perceived to travel faster when participants held a larger racket, and slower when using a smaller racket, the Colorado State University Fort Collins researchers found.

Do you see a normal face when the mask rotated to the hollow section?  Our prior knowledge of a normal face is that the nose protrudes. So, we subconsciously reconstructed the hollow face into a normal face. Image: PiktoChart

Do you see a normal face when the mask rotated to the hollow section? Our prior knowledge of a normal face is that the nose protrudes. So, we subconsciously reconstructed the hollow face into a normal face. Image: PiktoChart


It would be interesting to find the root of this kind of behaviour. Seem biases are good and clearly seem to have an evolutionary advantage. Trekking through the woods, people often mistake twigs for snakes because it’s better to be wrong than take the risk. Similarly, cars seem to travel faster than they really do because it gives you ‘more time’ to think and act.


Study finds why New Year’s resolutions to lose weight fail

Throughout our hunter-forager days, humans have developed a subconscious urge to over-eat and became less and less psychologically equipped to avoid obesity, especially during the winter months, a University of Exeter study recently found. Evolving in an environment where food security was only a pipe dream, the lack of an evolutionary mechanism to help us resist the temptation of sweet, fatty and unhealthy food is understandable, researchers state.

People ultimately are animals themselves, and like all animals we’ve evolved and adapted to living in the wild, tailoring our biology to the rigors of an often harsh and unforgiving environment. In the wild, from a survivalistic point of view being overweight brings much to the table for relatively little cost, but being underweight could be life threatening. So we’ve developed an urge to eat in order to maintain body fat; an urge that only gets stronger in the winter, when food became scarce in the natural world.

Ahaha, way ahead of you dawg!
Image via funnyjunk

This, scientists believe, explains why our winter holidays traditionally revolve around bountiful meals and why our New Year’s resolutions to lose all the extra weight fail so utterly. We don’t live in the wild any more though, and we know that being overweight is detrimental to our health in the modern world, so..

Why don’t we put the fork down?

 “You would expect evolution to have given us the ability to realise when we have eaten enough, but instead we show little control when faced with artificial food,” said Dr Andrew Higginson, from the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter, lead author of the study.

Higginson’s team used computer modelling to predict the optimal amount of fat that animals (including humans) should store, assuming evolution has given them physiological and psychological tools to maintain their healthiest weight. Their results show a strong correlation to the availability of food and predatory risks; in other words, when food is scarce animals should attempt to build their fat reserves to have a better chance of surviving if they can’t find anything to eat, and shed the extra pounds when food is readily available to give them a better chance of escaping predators (and looking less tasty.)

Overall, the model shows that there is sort of a tipping point, a target body weight above which the animal should try to lose weight and below which it should attempt to gain fat. But their simulations also showed that usually there’s only a small negative effect on energy stores (i.e. carrying those love-handles around) when exceeding the optimal point; evolution understands this really well, so any subconscious mechanisms working against becoming overweight are a feeble defense to the immediate physical reward of eating tasty food. In modern society where food is really tasty and readily available, the urge to eat becomes much more powerful than our internal weight-o-meters.

“Because modern food today has so much sugar and flavour the urge humans have to eat it is greater than any weak evolutionary mechanism which would tell us not to,” Higginson goes on to say.
 And during winter, our survival instincts kick in big time, making us much more likely to over-eat just so that we’ll survive winter; and making New Year’s weigh-loss resolutions throughout the world fail before they begin.

“The model also predicts animals should gain weight when food is harder to find. All animals, including humans, should show seasonal effects on the urge to gain weight. Storing fat is an insurance against the risk of failing to find food, which for pre-industrial humans was most likely in winter. This suggests that New Year’s Day is the worst possible time to start a new diet.”

The evolutionary model also shows that there is no evidence to support the “drifty gene” hypothesis, which some researchers have previously suggested would explain why some people become overweight and others do not.

The research, “Fatness and fitness: Exposing the logic of evolutionary explanations for obesity” is published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Trying to lose weight? (of course you are) — fish oil to the rescue

The fatty acids in fish oil (such as omega-3) help with a wide range of conditions, with WebMD detailing benefits ranging from improving the health of the heart and circulatory system all the way to fighting dyslexia, kidney disease and improving your child’s IQ.

Adding to this already impressive list of benefits, scientists from the Kyoto University found that feeding fish oils to lab mice made them gain considerably less weight than their fish-less counterparts. Their work suggests that fish oil determines the transition of fat-storing cells to fat-burning cells; should the same process occur in humans, fish oil could help us reduce weight gain and counteract the body’s natural loss of fat-burning cells as we age.

Fish oil capsules.
Image via sciencealert

Most of our fatty tissue’s primary function is to store energy for our other cells to dine on in case food is scarce but it isn’t limited to acting as a pantry. Where white fat cells store fat, brown fat cells are specialized in breaking it down — metabolizing it to keep our body’s temperature stable. These cells are more prevalent in our youth and they make it easier for us to burn through our adipose reserves, but their numbers go down as we age.

Researchers have also discovered a third type of fat cell they named beige fat cells. They function much like the brown variety of fat cells in both humans and mice, and are also known to become scarcer as we age. And this is where fish oil comes into play.

“We knew from previous research that fish oil has tremendous health benefits, including the prevention of fat accumulation,” said food scientist Teruo Kawada from Kyoto University. “We tested whether fish oil and an increase in beige cells could be related.”

Multilocular or Brown Fat tissue, a special adipose tissue involved in burning fat reserves to maintain body temperature.
Image via allposters

For the study, the team fed one control group of mice fatty food, and the other with the same diet with fish oil additives mixed in. The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, detail the weight changes of the animals and show that the group that had fish oil included in their diet gained between 5 to 10 percent less weight in total and 15 to 25 percent less fat. Not bad for a little oil, but why does it happen?

Their theory is that the oil activates sympathetic receptors in the digestive system that directs storage cells to metabolize fat. In essence, the fish oil determines the transformation of white cells to beige cells, increasing the rate at which the tissue burns fat and leading to a spike in energy expenditure — and all this energy comes from the white cells, reducing the rate of fat accumulation and ultimately, weight gain.

The results of the mice experiments are very encouraging, but right now we don’t really know if the findings also apply to humans. Further studies are needed to determine this, but the team believes that fish oil could become an effective treatment for obesity.

“People have long said that food from Japan and the Mediterranean contribute to longevity, but why these cuisines are beneficial was up for debate,” said Kawada. “Now we have better insight into why that may be.”



How much weight you need to lose to appear more attractive


Obesity rates have increased virtually everywhere in the world, especially in the developed world. Some 160 million Americans are obese or overweight. Over 70 percent of all men and 60 percent of all women from the US are overweight, and it seems like the next generation will have similar problems: nearly 30% of boys and girls under age 20 are either obese or overweight, up from 19% in 1980. When talking strictly about obesity, one-third of American men (32%) and women (34%) were obese in 2013 compared with about 4% of Chinese and Indian adults. Being obese puts you at risk of developing a myriad of conditions from heart disease and stroke, to diabetes, to some cancers, to osteoarthritis.  Yet, for all the hazards that being overweight causes most people would rather lose weight to appear more attractive, than be more healthy. The two are interlinked, as we shall see.  But that’s better than not having any reason at all to lose weight, and now a new study quantified just how much weight men and women need to lose for this to show and make them look more attractive. Some might find the findings useful.

Increased facial adiposity is associated with a compromised immune system, poor cardiovascular function, frequent respiratory infections, and mortality.

Previously, other studies showed that facial adiposity, or the perception of weight in the face, significantly predicts perceived health and attractiveness.  Overweight people have high facial adiposity and are perceived to be less attractive and lower in leadership ability.

To see just how subtle changes in facial adiposity need to be for people to notice, researchers from the University of Toronto, Canada presented a series photos to volunteers that were digitally doctored to make the people in photos appear more or less overweight than in reality. Participants looked at randomly selected pairs of images and were asked to choose the heavier one.

Researchers found that  a change in BMI (body mass index — defined as the body mass divided by the square of the body height) of 1.33 kg/m2 is required for someone to notice a difference between doctored photos. Then, the team assessed just how much weight an individual needed to lose to not only make an observer notice, but appear more attractive as well. For men, it was around 8.2kg or around 18 pounds. For women, the difference was 6.3kg or about 14 pounds.

“We calculated the weight change thresholds in terms of BMI rather than simple kilograms or pounds, so that people of all weights and heights can apply it to themselves according to their individual stature,” said Daniel Re, study co-author.

Even adjusting for height, proportionally women need to lose less weight than men to appear more attractive, according to the paper published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science.

Header image via Pixabay

Can’t find motivation to exercise? Do some drugs, expert says

Exercise is good for you, we all know that. And yet, 80 percent of Americans don’t get the recommended amount, with adverse effects on physical and mental heath. We know that we should, we can exercise practically everywhere….so why don’t we?

Ahhh, exercise!
Image via wikipedia

Well, apart from the lack of time due to jam-packed daily schedules, the most powerful personal barrier to exercise is physical exertion, Professor Samuele Marcora believes. From a biological standpoint, we as a species evolved to conserve energy — evolution made you lazy. He suggests that reducing the perceived effort of exercise through the use of caffeine or other psychoactive drugs (methylphenidate and modafinil for example) might help people overcome this biological barrier and stick to their workout plan.

Drastic? Sure. Controversial? No doubt. The Professor himself understands that it’s more of a band-aid than a cure but points out to the fact that the perception of effort is the main reason why people choose sedentary activities during their leisure time. When you compare watching TV to even moderate physical intensity activities such as walking, it’s easy to guess which would be preferred if you take this biological laziness into account.

Marcora says that there is no strong ethical opposition to the use of psychoactive drugs in other fields — they’re taken to help smokers quit (nicotine patches) or treat obesity (appetite suppressants). He believes that the negative perception of doping in sport events is what causes people to view his suggested use for drugs during exercise as outrageous.

On the flip side, if it helps people exercise, is it wrong? Physical inactivity is responsible for twice as many deaths as drug-related incidents, and a reduction in perceived effort would allow many of those who find exercise difficult physically or turn in from work in a state of mental fatigue exercise.

Professor Marcora hopes that psychopharmacological treatment for physical inactivity will be given fair and serious consideration rather than immediately rejected on unrelated ethical considerations about doping in sport.


Sugary drinks kill 180,000 adults worldwide

Low and middle-income countries bear the most deaths associated with sugary drink consumption. About 3 out of 4 deaths related to drinking sugary drinks happen in developing countries. These drinks greatly contribute to obesity, which in turn is associated with Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers of the breast, colon, esophagus, gall bladder, kidney, pancreas and ovaries.


Image: Aljazeera

According to the report published in the journal Circulation, Mexico tops  the list with about 24,000 adults’ deaths in 2010 being attributed to overconsumption of sugar-sweetened drinks. Mexico also has the highest per capita consumption of sugary drinks in the world. The United States comes in second, with 125 deaths per million adults, or about 25,000 deaths total. Worldwide, some 180,000 people die each year due to excessive consumption of sugary drinks.

The findings were made after researchers analyzed data pertaining to patterns of sugary drink consumption in 51 countries from 1980 to 2010. In total, some 187 countries were included in the study. The surveys included both homemade and mass-produced drinks which  deliver 50 calories or more per 8-ounce serving, but did not include 100% fruit juices.

This is the first-ever global report on the effect of sugar-sweetened beverages on death rates, and the results sound quite depressing.

“This is not complicated,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tuft University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and a senior author of the new research. “There are no health benefits from sugar-sweetened beverages, and the potential impact of reducing consumption is saving tens of thousands of deaths each year.”

“This is a single dietary factor with no intrinsic health value causing tens of thousands of deaths per year,” Mozaffarian said.

Unsurprisingly, the highly biased  American Beverage Association released a statement, saying the study “does not show that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages causes chronic diseases.”

“America’s beverage companies are doing our part to offer consumers the fact-based information and the beverage options they need to make the right choices for themselves and their families,” the ABA said in a statement.

Doing their part? Like purposely misleading citizens into thinking energy and sports drinks are healthy? Basically, the industry is playing an old trick: the science isn’t certain that sugary drinks cause chronic health problems, so they’re just running it. Alright, it’s just highly likely that they do. For most people that should be enough. Here are just a few (out of a slew) of studies which link sugary drinks with chronic diseases:

  • People who consume sugary drinks regularly—1 to 2 cans a day or more—have a 26% greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who rarely have such drinks. (study)
  • A study that followed 40,000 men for two decades found that those who averaged one can of a sugary beverage per day had a 20% higher risk of having a heart attack or dying from a heart attack than men who rarely consumed sugary drinks. (study)
  • Soft drink intake is associated with increased energy intake and body weight. Soft drink intake also was associated with lower intakes of milk, calcium, and other nutrients and with an increased risk of several medical problems (e.g., diabetes). (study)

Younger people are more affected by sugary drinks, as chronic disease attributed to sugar-sweetened beverages are more common than in elders.

“It also raises concerns about the future,” said Gitanjali Singh, the lead author of the study and a research assistant professor at Tufts’ Friedman School. “If these young people continue to consume high levels as they age, the effects of high consumption will be compounded by the effects of aging, leading to even higher death and disability rates from heart disease and diabetes than we are seeing now.”


Red Lobster: “Create Your Own Combination” meal (2,710 calories). Adding a Lobsterita, the chain’s 890-calorie margarita, brings the total to 3,600 calories.

The most unhealthy, calorie ridden, sodium rich restaurant meals in America

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group based in Washington, DC, just released its Xtreme Eating Awards. Hint: it’s not that kind of award you want to win or even get mentioned. CSPI officials ranked the highest calorie, fat-rich meals served in restaurants across the country. This year, they say, they’ve been completely blown away by what they found on the table served to Americans.

“When we first started these studies [in 2007], we were shocked to see meals with 1,000 calories, but that has become the norm,” Paige Einstein, CSPI’s Project Coordinator and a registered dietitian said.

 Red Lobster: “Create Your Own Combination” meal (2,710 calories). Adding a Lobsterita, the chain’s 890-calorie margarita, brings the total to 3,600 calories.

Red Lobster: “Create Your Own Combination” meal (2,710 calories). Adding a Lobsterita, the chain’s 890-calorie margarita, brings the total to 3,600 calories.

CSPI surveyed the menus of more than 200 restaurant chains and ranked the “unholiest” of them. Surprisingly, KFC doesn’t even make the list. Instead, you’ll find chains like The Cheesecake Factory, Outback Steakhouse, and Red Lobster. The latter tops the most calorie punch if you choose Red Lobster’s “Create Your Own Combination” in the following combo: the Parrot Isle Jumbo Coconut Shrimp, Walt’s Favorite Shrimp, and Shrimp Linguine Alfredo to go with the Caesar salad, French fries, and one Cheddar Bay Biscuit. Together the meal packs 2,710 calories or more than you need for a whole day. The real kicker comes if you decide to order the 24-ounce Lobsterita (the restaurant’s margarita) to go along with your shrimp. In total, the meal would hit 3,600 calories.

Ranking 2nd of the worse is Steak ‘n’ Shake’s 7×7 Steakburger ‘n Fries with a chocolate fudge brownie milkshake (2,530 calories), followed by Dickey’s Barbecue Pit’s 3 Meat Plate (2,500 calories). Here are some (dis)honorable mentions found by Patch:

  • IHOP’s Chorizo Fiesta Omelette: The omelette alone has 1,300 calories, but it comes with three buttermilk pancakes (or hash browns, toast or fruit). That brings the total to 1,9900 calories and two days’ worth of saturated fat.
  • The Herb Roasted Prime Rib dinner is a 16 oz. prime rib alone, containing 1,400 calories. If you got a dressed baked potato and classic blue cheese wedge salad, along with bread, you’d hit 2,400 calories, 71 grams of fat, and 3,560 mg of sodium.
  • The Louisiana Chicken Pasta at the Cheesecake Factory weighs 1½ pounds, comes topped with four slices of heavily breaded chicken. Add the New Orleans sauce (butter and heavy cream), and your plate is up to 2,370 calories.
  • The Pick & Choose menu at Uno Pizzeria & Grill lets diners choose from five salads, four pastas, and three pizzas. CSPI started with the Baked Ziti & Sausage Pasta. That’s 720 calories (a third of a day’s worth), which is high-but-reasonable… for an entire meal. They added a Chicago Classic Deep Dish Pizza. Add ’em up and you get 2,190 calories, 49 grams of saturated fat (2½ days’ worth), 5,420 mg of sodium (a 3½-day supply), and white flour galore. As CSPI said, it’s the equivalent of eating three Pizza Hut Pepperoni Lover’s Personal Pan Pizzas.

The full list can be found here.

“This nutritional shipwreck from Red Lobster exemplifies the kind of gargantuan restaurant meal that promotes obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases,” said CSPI registered dietitian Paige Einstein in an announcement. “If this meal were unusual, that would be one thing, but America’s chain restaurants are serving up 2,000-calorie breakfasts, 2,000-calorie lunches, 2,000-calorie dinners, and 2,000-calorie desserts left and right. Abnormal is the new normal.”

Starting December this year, restaurants will be mandated by the Food and Drug Administration to list calories for each item on their menus. Until then, if you’re not sure what you’re ordering, the SPI suggests you keep clear of hefty-looking meals and order from the “lighter menus”.

About a quarter of commercial television advertisements are for food.

Obese teens are much more susceptible to junk food commercials, brain scans reveal

It’s no secret that  TV food commercials stimulate pleasure and reward centers in the brain, after all advertisers wouldn’t pay big money for them to air if they didn’t entice people to order more. In fact, food advertising has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Teenagers are exposed on average to 13 food commercials on any given day. At the same time, childhood and adolescent obesity in the US has been on the rise fast and worrisome, so we can’t help but notice the connection. Now, researchers at Dartmouth found overweight teens are disproportionately affected by TV food commercials, as key brain regions that control pleasure, taste and – most surprisingly – the mouth are all much more stimulated than those teens with less body fat. The findings are important since they suggest overweight teens exposed to this kind of environment will experience further difficulties when they try to lose weight. A further insight is that dietary plans should also target subsequent thinking concerning eating food, not just the temptation.

About a quarter of commercial television advertisements are for food.

About a quarter of commercial television advertisements are for food.

The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period, according to the CDC. Previously, ZME Science reported a number of studies related to TV advertisement, food and obesity in children and adolescents. For instance, one study found that the main reason people tend to overeat might be the response to a Pavlovian conditional reflex (McDonalds logos prompting people to immediately feel “hungry”). What’s worrisome are also the sly tactics employed by the industry, like marketing foods endorsed by athletes, despite over 90% of these brands are actually junk food. Long story short, exposure to food marketing promotes eating habits that contribute to obesity, children most vulnerable of all. What’s despicable however is that it all sounds more and more each day like an addiction problem, instead of a dietary choice.

The Dartmouth researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while participants – overweight and healthy-weight adolescents ages 12-16 – were watching some episodes of the “The Big Bang Theory,” a popular age-appropriate TV series. The teens were not aware of the study’s objective. From time to time, TV food commercials as well as non-food commercials were aired. The fMRI readings showed that  brain regions involved in attention and focus (occipital lobe, precuneus, superior temporal gyri and right insula) and in processing rewards (nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex) were more strongly active when the food commercials were viewed, more so than non-food commercials. Adolescents with higher body fat showed greater reward-related activity than those with less body fat, particularly in regions associated with taste perception. What’s really surprising was that the food commercials also activated parts of the brains that control the mouth, its movements and perception. What’s more, the researchers played genuine commercials like those aired on live TV by McDonald’s and Burger King, so the findings must be closer to reality.

“This finding suggests the intriguing possibility that overweight adolescents mentally simulate eating while watching food commercials,” says lead author Kristina Rapuano, a graduate student in Dartmouth’s Brain Imaging Lab. “These brain responses may demonstrate one factor whereby unhealthy eating behaviors become reinforced and turned into habits that potentially hamper a person’s ability lose weight later in life.”

The food commercials also activated brain centers that control the mouth. Credit: Kristina Rapuano

The food commercials also activated brain centers that control the mouth. Credit: Kristina Rapuano

So, the teens aren’t just tempted to eat food, they actually unconsciously simulate what it would be like to munch on some chicken wings or burger. Dietary planers should take this into serious consideration. It’s not just temptation activated by reward centers in the brain that makes it hard for kids to follow a diet, but also a coupled bodily movement that’s always a sign of an eating habit or disorder. Findings appeared in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

“Unhealthy eating is thought to involve both an initial desire to eat a tempting food, such as a piece of cake, and a motor plan to enact the behavior, or eating it,” Rapuano says. “Diet intervention strategies largely focus on minimizing or inhibiting the desire to eat the tempting food, with the logic being that if one does not desire, then one won’t enact. Our findings suggest a second point of intervention may be the somatomotor simulation of eating behavior that follows from the desire to eat. Interventions that target this system, either to minimize the simulation of unhealthy eating or to promote the simulation of healthy eating, may ultimately prove to be more useful than trying to suppress the desire to eat.”



high fat diet

High-fat diet might put your mental health at risk

Mice that had gut bacteria transferred from other mice fed with a high fat diet changed their behavior in a negative way, exhibiting anxiety or impaired memory. The findings suggest that apart from heart disease and stroke, obesity might put people’s mental health at risk as well.

high fat diet

Image: iStockPhoto


Microbiologists have known for some time that different diets create different gut flora – the trillions of bacterial cells live inside you and help your body function in good conditions. The researchers at Louisiana State University believed that a high-fat diet alters the gut fauna in a way that might render negative effects. To test this hypothesis, they served a high-fat diet to mice, then after a while they transferred gut bacteria to mice that were under a normal diet. They found that the obesity-related microbiome alters behavior and cognition even in the absence of obesity.

The mice experienced multiple disruption in behavior, including increased anxiety, impaired memory, and repetitive behavior. Physiological issues were also uncovered, like intestinal permeability and markers of inflammation. In the brain signs of inflammation were also discovered, suggesting these were actually the triggers for the erratic behavior. All of these highlight quite serious mental health problems associated with obesity, independent of the psychological warfare obesity often wages against its hosts who are social and self-inflicting stigma.

This paper suggests that high-fat diets impair brain health, in part, by disrupting the symbiotic relationship between humans and the microorganisms that occupy our gastrointestinal tracks,” Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry

Just earlier this month, ZME Science reported a study which found two very common emulsifiers – chemicals that stabilize foods and stop products like mayo from separating – could increase the risk of obesity and irritable bowel syndrome. The study on mice found that even in low concentrations, carboxymethycellulose and polysorbate-80 drastically affect the gut bacteria which seems to lead to obesity as well as a number of gut-related problems.

These changes can happen incredibly fast in the human gut—within three or four days of a big shift in what you eat, as reported previously by a study published in Nature. This means that eating high-fat foods for only a couple of days could significantly change your mood and behavior if you previously were on a balanced diet.


Hamilton’s Sean Wharton: “Obesity Is a Medical, Multi Factorial Problem”

The topic of obesity inspires quite a bit of discussion, as well it should.  The claim that North America is currently experiencing an obesity “epidemic”, a claim oftentimes mentioned by the media, is not hyperbole.  Indeed, weight management has become such a global issue that the World Health Organization (WHO) has also termed the problem an “epidemic”.

Here are some facts that may put the problem with obesity in clearer perspective.  In the United States, over 65% of the adult population is overweight.  In Canada, meanwhile, roughly 40 to 60% of adults are struggling with a weight problem.  As reported by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), between 1980 and 2000, obesity rates in the United States doubled among adults.  Even more alarming, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and more than quadrupled in adolescents over the past thirty years, based on figures also reported by the CDC.

In trying to find a solution to the rise in obesity rates, many have subscribed various reasons to why people are obese.  Some have considered obesity to be an addiction and, therefore, something that can be treated like any other type of addiction.  Others have subscribed the rise in obesity to the fact that North Americans no longer exercise regularly and have more sedentary jobs.

Sean Wharton argues something entirely different.  An internal medicine specialist who studied under Dr. Arya Sharma, Sean Wharton now runs the government-funded Wharton Medical Clinic in Canada.  Having studied and worked with obesity for more than a decade, Dr. Sean Wharton argues that instead of obesity being caused by one particular reason, obesity is a multi-factorial problem.

What does that mean?

What Dr. Wharton means is that obesity is caused by various factors that include genetics, level of exercise, and diet, among others.

In a radio broadcast recorded several years ago, Dr. Sean Wharton described what he means by a obesity being a multi-factorial problem in this way:

… so it’s not so much whether [obesity’s] an addiction or not … the thing is that it is a multi-factorial problem.  So, it’s a medical problem.  And the medical problem itself has multiple different causes, endocrinology problems, like either thyroid problems or disorder eating, or emotional problems, or just a genetic predisposition to hang on to weight.  So, it’s not just about addiction, it’s about a multiple of things.

Dr. Sean Wharton’s multi-factorial stance also plays a significant role in how he and his team treat obesity at the Wharton Medical Clinic.  Understanding that weight management is influenced by a number of factors, Dr. Wharton and his team of internal medicine specialists approach weight loss on a number of fronts, including improving a patient’s diet, monitoring and reducing the risk for co-morbidities, like stroke and hypertension, and creating an executable exercise routine.

Those who struggle with weight management not only debate why they are obese, but also how to go about losing weight.  In considering these questions, some will consider the effectiveness of commercial weight loss programs and whether they are healthy and can actually help achieve long-term weight loss.

There are plenty of opinions on commercial diet programs.  It’s interesting to note that Dr. Sharma and Dr. Wharton do not dismiss commercial weight loss programs outright.  However, what many internal medicine specialists caution against, including Dr. Sharma and Dr. Wharton, is the yo-yoing affect that many commercial programs cause.

“In my professional view, obesity is a medical problem,” says Sean Wharton, “and it deserves a multi-disciplined treatment by internal medicine specialists.  Moreover, healthy weight management should be geared toward long-term treatment, as opposed to rapid weight loss.  Commercial weight loss programs that promote or promise rapid weight loss, in my mind, are not only suspect, but will probably causing a yo-yoing, weight-loss-weight-gain pattern that is very unhealthy to the body.”


Love Hormone might help men lose weight

A study conducted on a small number of men concluded that the “love hormone” oxytocin may reduce appetite, helping men lose weight.

Oxytocin – the so-called love hormone. Image via Nauka.

Oxytocin is a hormone existing only in mammals, produced by the hypothalamus and stored and secreted by the posterior pituitary gland. Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors. Most recently, oxytocin has been linked with sobriety from alcohol intoxication. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone” or the “love hormone”.

This new study gave men oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray to see if it can help them lose weight.

“We are seeing early signs that oxytocin reduces how much food someone eats at a meal and improves the way their body handles blood sugar,” said study lead author Dr. Elizabeth Lawson, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

However, despite the conclusive results of the study, I’d advise maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism, as the research was conducted only on 25 men. The men (12 of which were overweight or obese) had an average age of 27 years; they were asked to self-administer the oxytocin nasal spray one hour before breakfast, and then they were given twice as much food as they ordered.

During the double-blind, controlled, crossover study, the food intake was measured and calories and fat consumption was evaluated. The group was re-tested after two weeks, and the scientists report that people who used the spray significantly reduced their food and calorie intake compared to the control group. Study lead investigator Elizabeth Lawson, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, said:

“We studied the effect of a single dose of oxytocin on food intake and metabolism on healthy men. We are seeing early signs that oxytocin reduces how much food someone eats at a meal and improves the way their body handles blood sugar.”

The research team said that with reduction in calorie and fat intake, oxytocin nasal spray could help in weight loss up to 9 pounds (4 kg) over 12 weeks or 35 pounds (16kg) over a year.  However, it’s quite unlikely that this medication would be used as an effective weight-loss strategy; the monthly cost of administering the spray three times a day would be $275.

Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California,  sees potential.

“From an evolutionary perspective, oxytocin is released during positive social interactions — when we are around others who care about us. This is just when food sharing is likely to occur. If we want to lose weight, having others around us who care about us can help reduce appetite,” he suggested.

But there are some significant caveats with this study; first of all, as mentioned above, the small number of study subjects is an issue, and the results have to be replicated over a larger sample size. Manfred Hallschmid, a neuroendocrinologist with the University of Lubeck in Germany is very skeptical of the results:

“Long-term clinical trials are clearly necessary to answer the question whether oxytocin is effective in reducing body weight and if such an effect might go along with unwanted psychosocial side effects.”

It remains to be seen if further studies confirm the potential role of oxytocin in weight loss.

Scientific Reference: Elizabeth Lawson, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, and director, Interdisciplinary Oxytocin Research Program, neuroendocrine unit, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston; Paul Zak, Ph.D., chairman and professor, economics, and founding director, Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, Calif.; Manfred Hallschmid, Ph.D., neuroendocrinologist, department of neuroendocrinology, University of Lubeck, Germany; March 8, 2015, presentation, Endocrine Society annual meeting,

cutting down on sugar

WHO says sugar intake should be halved to cut obesity pandemic

It’s increasingly hard to eat less sugar, as market shelves are filled with sugary products. In the past ten years alone, global sugar intake has risen by ten percent. In what’s not the first and surely not the last appeal of the sort, the Wold Health Organization reports adults and children  from the Americas to Western Europe and the Middle East must halve their daily sugar intake to reach acceptable levels. Otherwise the risk of obesity and tooth decay, to name a few, will skyrocket. In terms of daily energy intake, the new guidelines means that people should keep sugar at a maximum of 10% of equivalent energy.

cutting down on sugar

Image: Thinkstock / jayfish

The current average in South America was 130 grams per adult per day, in North and Central America 95 grams, in Western Europe about 101 grams and 90 grams in the Middle East, Branca said. Equatorial and southern Africa has the lowest average of 30 grams.

Robert H. Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and is mostly working on childhood obesity. You might have heard of him before, since one of his talks  called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” went viral on YouTube, with over 3 million views. He argues that the rivers of Coca-Cola and Pepsi consumed by young people today have as much (if not more) to do with obesity as the mountains of burgers. In this line, “zero fat” products are being marketed feverishly nowadays to adjust for a heightened awareness on obesity, but ironically these contain lots of sugar which could arguably be worse.

“The reason we are focusing on sugar is that we really have seen the important association with weight gain and obesity is a major public health concern for many countries, an increasing concern,” the Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, Dr. Francesco Branca, told a briefing.

WHO recommends adults keep their daily sugar uptake to no more than 50 grams or 12 teaspoons of sugar for adults. If this sounds like a lot, consider a  can of sugar-sweetened soda contains up to 40 grams (around 10 teaspoons) of sugar. Orange and apple juice has about 24-26 grams. So, it’s enough to drink a can of coke at breakfast and you’re almost at the threshold, and you still have to consider what you’re eating for breakfast in the first place, then brunch, lunch and dinner. It’s damn easy to overdue it. Here are just a few products you’d think don’t have that much added sugar:

  • Soup. A can of Progresso’s Rich & Hearty Beef Pot Roast has 4 grams of sugar.
  • Bread. Most loafs today are sweetened, and two slices typically contain two grams of sugar.
  • Yogurt. A container of Chobani’s 0% fat Greek yogurt in black cherry flavor lists 17 grams (about 4 teaspoons) of sugar.
  • Salad dressing. Wish-Bone’s Deluxe French salad dressing, for instance, lists 4 grams (about 1 teaspoon) of sugar per serving.
  • BBQ sauce. With a serving size of 2 tablespoons the sugar in these products can add up fast.

It’s important to note that the report covers free sugars such as glucose and fructose, and sucrose or table sugar added to processed foods and drinks. Sugars found in fresh fruit, vegetables and milk were not covered.

Global sugar consumption from a daily average of about 58 grams per person in 2003 to 63 grams in 2013, is up about 10 percent, according to the WHO. Not surprisingly, the US Sugar Association slammed the report saying it used “weak and inconsistent data” to link sugar intake to chronic diseases, but peer-reviewed studies suggest otherwise. Harvard researchers found a sugar-laden diet may raise your risk of dying of heart disease even if you aren’t overweight. U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who got at least 25 percent of their calories from added sugar were almost three times more likely to die of heart problems than those who consumed the least – less than 10 percent.

Why processed foods make you fat: two common food additives linked to obesity and gut inflammation

A new study suggests that two very common emulsifiers – chemicals that stabilize foods and stop products like mayo from separating – could increase the risk of obesity and irritable bowel syndrome.

Mayo and mustard are among the products which almost always contain emulsifiers. Image via Wiki Commons.

The emulsifiers in question are carboxymethycellulose and polysorbate-80; especially in Europe and North America, they are commonly used in processed foods (mayo, ketchup, numerous sauces, ice cream, gluten-free products, fat-free products and many others) and other common products (toothpaste, detergents etc). The study conducted on mice showed that even in low concentrations, these substances drastically affect the gut bacteria which seems to lead to obesity as well as a number of gut-related problems.

In recent times, numerous studies have shown that gut bacteria is crucial to our well-being; it’s important to our weight, immune system and digestive health… it may even control our mind (seriously). Anything disrupting the activity of the “good bacteria” in the gut has the potential to do massive damage. With this in mind, the scientists who conducted this new study might have found why processed food make us so fat, and why gut conditions like irritable bowel syndrome have increased since the mid-twentieth century, especially in association with processed foods.

Andrew Gewirtz at Georgia State University and his team added the two emulsifiers in varying levels to the drinking water of lab mice. They found that most healthy mice who were given the emulsifiers soon developed metabolic problems and/or became obese. When they fed mice even more emulsifiers, they started to develop inflammatory gut diseases, with the severity of the affection being directly linked to the quantity of ingested emulsifiers. These effects were seen even in mice that consumed the equivalent of just one-tenth of the concentration of the emulsifiers that the FDA permits in food products.

The researchers then wanted to see why this happens, so they tested the gut bacteria of these animals and found that the emulsifiers destroy much of the microbial fauna in the gut (again, this microbial fauna is actually beneficial to the body).

Scientists advise eating less processed foods. Image via Wiki Commons.

This is extremely worrying because it’s not easy to find emulsifier-free foods – products labeled as ‘organic’ are just as likely to contain these substances, as emulsifiers are not generally considered processed (I’m really not sure why though). Gewirtz says that many more human and animal studies need to be completed before regulatory agencies would consider changing how additives are approved – but it seems clear that we need to change the way we approve and the way we eat, especially when it comes to processed foods.

The next step would be to move on to human tests and see how our bodies are reacting to these substances. Over the past 50 years, no study has conclusively found that food additives are toxic in mammals, but then again, no large studies have ever focused on the gut bacteria.

Overall, this paper adds a lot to the idea that processed foods have long-lasting and hard to understand effects on our bodies – effects which aren’t at all positive.

Immunologist Andrew Gewirtz at Georgia State University in Atlanta who was also involved in the study concluded:

“When it comes to people making their own decisions, between our studies and others out there, it’s better to eat less processed food,” he says.

You can read the full scientific paper for free, at Nature.

Weight loss drugs may lead to cancer development

In the developed world, obesity is one of the biggest health concerns, so weight loss is one of the hottest topics today. But while dietary supplements and gastric by-pass surgeries are becoming more and more popular, we are also starting to discover issues associated with these procedures. Recently, a study published in Cell showed that the new generation of weight loss drugs may actually favor cancer development.

cureWeight loss products typically work by encouraging and stimulating gut hormones and acids. All gut hormones and bile acids aid in digestion, but some actually encourage growth – for example, the peptide-2 (GLP-2) stimulated cell division in the intestines. Now, scientists at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto found a new gut-growth role for another gut hormone, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). They report that the increase in GLP-1 activity, can increase the incidence of intestinal tumors, while removing the peptide actually reduces tumor incidence.

“For many years, people focused on GLP-1 as a b cell growth factor, and some investigators raised questions about the possibility of pancreatic cancer,” says senior author Daniel Drucker, MD, an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute and a Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto. “We don’t have any evidence that that’s the case; however, our paper now raises the possibility that GLP-1 is an intestinal growth factor. No previous studies to date have linked long-term use of GLP-1-based drugs with increased rates of cancer; however, we think patients with a previous history, or increased risk, of colon cancer may not be ideally suited for these therapies,” he adds.

Based on data gathered on mice, Drucker is not only questioning the long term impact of weight loss products, but also raising concerns about new investigational drugs in clinical development for diabetes and other metabolic diseases, which elevate GLP-1, GLP-2, and bile acids.

“We’re pretty conservative about not overstating the potential clinical relevance of our studies done in mice, but mouse data always generate a hypothesis, and my hypothesis would be that if you have increased levels of gut-growth molecules, I would consider following up with regular colonoscopies for the appropriate patients,” Dr. Drucker says.

This study highlights once again that weight loss supplements and surgical procedures are not a replacement for a healthy lifestyle and a proper diet. The negative side effects are often far-reaching and unforseeable.

Journal Reference: Cell Metabolism.