Thursday, June 12, 2008

More Masai

I left out one of the juicier tidbits from the last post because it was getting long. Investigators Kang-Jey Ho et al. wanted an explanation for why the Masai didn't have high serum cholesterol despite their high dietary cholesterol intake (up to 2,000 mg per day-- 6.7 times the US FDA recommended daily allowance).

They took 23 male Masai subjects aged 19 to 24 and divided them into two groups. The first group of 11 was the control group, which received a small amount of radioactive cholesterol in addition to a cholesterol-free diet that I will describe below. The second group of 12 was the experimental group, which they fed 2,000 mg cholesterol per day, a small amount of radioactive cholesterol as a tracer, and the exact same cholesterol-free diet as the control group. For the duration of the 24-week trial, the subjects ate the experimental diet exclusively. Here's what it was (in order of calories, descending):
  • Nondairy coffee creamer (made of corn syrup solids and vegetable oil)
  • Beans
  • Sugar
  • Corn
  • Corn oil
  • A vitamin pill
Not a healthy diet by most peoples' standards, but those items are nevertheless widely eaten in the US. Over the course of the 24-week study, the investigators found no difference in serum cholesterol between the control and experimental groups. This isn't really surprising. The body has mechanisms for regulating blood cholesterol, and if you aren't eating any it just synthesizes more to stay at its preferred level.

The really interesting thing is that serum cholesterol increased dramatically in
both groups. It went from 125 mg/100 mL to over 170 mg/100 mL, despite a large decrease in the saturated fat they were eating. The change took about two weeks to occur, and remained fairly stable for the remainder of the trial.

Both groups also gained weight. In the first week, they gained an average of
3 pounds each. To be fair, the initial gain was probably most water, which is what happens when a person increases their carbohydrate and salt intake. The investigators freaked out and cut their calorie intake by 400 kcal, only allowing them 3,600 kcal per day. Initially, they were voluntarily consuming 4,000 kcal per day. I find that interesting as well. Something tells me they weren't chugging non-dairy creamer because it was so delicious, but because their confused hormones were telling them to EAT.

Even after putting the subjects on calorie restriction (not letting them eat as much as they wanted, by an average of 400 kcal/day), they continued gaining weight. By the end of the study, the 23 subjects had gained an average of 7.8 lbs per person.

To summarize, this is what the investigators saw when they put 23 unfortunate Masai men on a bottom-rung industrially processed diet: elevated cholesterol, hyperphagia (excessive eating), and weight gain. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?