Saturday, August 9, 2008


One of the things I didn't mention in the last post is that Americans are eating more calories than ever before. According to Centers for Disease Control NHANES data, in 2000, men ate about 160 more calories per day, and women ate about 340 more than in 1971. That's a change of 7% and 22%, respectively. The extra calories come almost exclusively from refined grains, with the largest single contribution coming from white wheat flour (correction: the largest single contribution comes from corn sweeteners, followed by white wheat flour).

Some people will see those data and decide the increase in calories is the explanation for the expanding American waistline. I don't think that's incorrect, but I do think it misses the point. The relevant question is "why are we eating more calories now than we were in 1971?"

We weren't exactly starving in 1971. And average energy expenditure, if anything, has actually increased. So why are we eating more? I believe that our increased food intake, or hyperphagia, is the result of metabolic disturbances, rather than the cause of them.

Humans, like all animals, have a sophisticated system of hormones and brain regions whose function is to maintain a proper energy balance. Part of the system's job is to keep fat mass at an appropriate level. With a properly functioning system, feedback loops inhibit hunger once fat mass has reached a certain level, and also increase resting metabolic rate to burn excess calories. If the system is working properly, it's very difficult to gain weight. There have been a number of overfeeding studies in which subjects have consumed huge amounts of excess calories. Some people gain weight, many don't.

The fact that fat mass is hormonally regulated can be easily seen in other mammals. When was the last time you saw a fat squirrel in the springtime? When was the last time you saw a thin squirrel in the fall? These events are regulated by hormones. A squirrel in captivity will put on weight in the fall, even if its daily food intake is not changed.

A key hormone in this process is leptin. Leptin levels are proportional to fat mass, and serve to inhibit hunger and eating behaviors. Under normal conditions, the more fat tissue a person has, the more leptin they will produce, and the less they will eat until the fat mass has reached the body's preferred 'set-point'. The problem is that overweight Westerners are almost invariably leptin-resistant, meaning their body doesn't respond to the signal to stop eating!

Leptin resistance leads to hyperphagia, overweight and the metabolic syndrome (a common cluster of symptoms that implies profound metabolic disturbance). It typically precedes insulin resistance during the downward slide towards metabolic syndrome.

I suspect that wheat, sugar and perhaps other processed foods cause hyperphagia. I believe hyperphagia is at least partially secondary to a disturbed metabolism. There's something about industrial foods that reached a critical mass in the mid-70s. The shift in diet sent us into a tailspin of excessive eating and unprecedented weight gain.