Zhangling Chen et al., from Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, presented new research on diet at this year’s European Congress on Obesity. Their findings were based on a long-term study observing around 10,000 middle-aged and elderly adults from the Rotterdam Study. The results showed that people eating a higher proportion of plant-based foods have lower waist circumferences and BMIs, mainly due to lower body fat mass.
As we already know, obesity is associated with elevated levels of inflammation and greater risks of getting “diseases of affluence” such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and osteoarthritis.
According to the authors: “a more plant-based and less animal-based diet beyond strict adherence to vegan or vegetarian diets may be beneficial for preventing overweight/obesity in middle-aged and elderly populations. In other words, eating to protect against obesity does not require a radical change in diet or a total elimination of meat or animal products. Instead, it can be achieved in various ways, such as moderate reduction of red meat consumption or eating a few more vegetables. This supports current recommendations to shift to diets rich in plant foods, with low consumption of animal foods.” This conclusion is reassuring and encouraging for all those that would like to make some dietary changes but are intimidated by the effort and motivation required to completely overhaul their diets. We have to start our journey somewhere…and just a few steps in the right direction can start to make a difference!
Hoffman et al., from Marquette University in Wisconsin, have recently studied the effects of artificial sweeteners on rat physiology. They found that the consumption of aspartame (E951) or acesulfame potassium (E950) can lead to vascular impairment and changes in fat metabolism “that may be important during the onset and progression of diabetes and obesity”.
Research by Sen et al. presented at the 100th annual meeting of the Endocrine Society has shown that the low-calorie sweetener sucralose (E955) can have adverse health effects. Sucralose was found to promote more fat deposits within cells. It may cause this by increasing the transport of glucose into cells and overexpressing fat-producing genes. Another potential mechanism may be the promotion of oxygen radicals. These extremely reactive particles cause inflammation and facilitate the accumulation of fat within cells.
The researchers comment that these effects are “more pronounced in overweight and obese people rather than their normal weight counterparts because they have more insulin resistance and may have more glucose in their blood“.
A group of researchers from Berkeley and Columbia University looked at the relationship between bedtime and weight gain in young people. Their findings have been published in the journal Sleep. They followed over 3000 adolescents between 1994 and 2009. They found that a later bedtime during the workweek was associated with an increase in body mass index (BMI) over time. Even after controlling for sleep duration, screen time and exercise, the relationship was not attenuated. However, fast-food consumption was recognized as a mediator of the relationship. To summarise, if we want to keep off excess pounds we should get to bed earlier and obviously keep away from fast food!
Numerous studies have shown a link between sleep loss and obesity. Medical News Today summarises the findings of recent research by Stephanie Greer and her colleagues. They found that brain activity in the frontal lobe was significantly impaired following a night of sleep deprivation. The frontal lobe is responsible for higher mental functions such as “the ability to recognise future consequences resulting from current actions“. It’s thought that the impairment in brain function caused by sleep loss leads to poor food choices…and later to obesity.
This got me thinking…obesity is known to predispose to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA is a disorder caused by temporary blockages of the airway during sleep. This causes repeated periods when people actually stop breathing…shortly followed by gasps for air. Obviously this affects the quality of sleep and can lead to severe daytime sleepiness.
Could there be a vicious cycle at play here?
An article in today’s BBC News Health discusses recent research published in Science Translational Medicine. Dr Orfeu Buxton et al. have shown that “prolonged sleep restriction with concurrent circadian disruption alters metabolism and could increase the risk of obesity and diabetes”. This has implications to people performing shift work.
According to research, obesity is to a certain extent genetically determined. The pandemic now affects a billion people and has gradually grown over the last 150 years. Interestingly, our genes have not changed over that period. So how could obesity, which is genetically determined, have appeared over a time when our genes have remained unchanged? What has changed?
Well, over 150 years ago 90% of the population lived an agricultural lifestyle. They walked to work, performed active physical work, walked home after work. Water had to be carried and clothes washed by hand. Our lifestyles were much more similar to those of our distant ancestors in that, we stood and walked for most of the day.
With the advent of industrialisation and urbanisation 50% of the world’s population moved to the cities. This figure is even higher in developed countries. Factory work became prevalent and chair-based work replaced standing just like machine operation replaced tool use. The biggest change has taken place over the last 25 years…over half the population in the developed world now sits in front of a computer for 8 hours a day. As a result of these changes, our occupational energy expenditure could have decreased by as much as 1200 kcal/day.
At home most of us have a personal computer and we spend a few more hours banking, shopping, browsing and even socialising (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc)! Oh, and if we’re not sitting in front of the computer it’s probably the television…another brilliant invention that appeared in the last century. Sales of labour-saving devices like washing machines, dishwashers and cars track obesity rates and it’s estimated that mechanisation saves around 111 kcal/day.
Obviously food has become more available (in industrialised countries) and one could assume that our intake has increased. Surprisingly, in the UK since the 1980s, energy intake seems to have decreased whereas obesity rates have doubled! Statistics in the US show that intake hasn’t changed but obesity has skyrocketed…
Here’s a quick thermodynamics refresher…when energy is added to a system it’s either used to perform work or stored…if the energy intake is greater than the energy expenditure, the excess is stored as fat…if the energy imbalance continues over several months or years it leads to obesity. It’s becoming clear that it’s the decrease in our activity that has lead to the weight gain.
How come we haven’t all been affected by this? This is where the genetics plays it’s part. Those of us that are genetically programmed to conserve energy have blossomed in this new modern environment, the rest have found other ways to replace their need for movement: walking or cycling to work, pacing about at work, getting involved in DIY at home, going to the gym or taking part in sports or active hobbies. Crucial research shows that lean sedentary people stand and walk for about 2.5 hrs/day more than obese people. If obese individuals were to stand and walk 2.5 hrs more each day it would equate to an expenditure of 350 kcal/day which is exactly the figure that was identified in a different study to determine the amount of exercise that obese people had to undertake to help weight loss.
Why should we care about obesity? Perhaps because it’s been linked to type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, arthritis, sleep apnea and cancer…maybe because obesity related medical expenses are out of control and in the US they reached $75 billion in 2003!
What’s the best way to lose weight? Is it through exercise or non-exercise activity? Or both? According to Dr Levine, the majority of people who exercise for just under 2 hours a week expend an average of about 100 kcal/day. This is a drop in the ocean compared to what it’s possible to achieve by increasing non-exercise activity. Granted, we can’t all change our jobs and become lumberjacks or tree surgeons but we can become more active both at work and at home. Our muscles are almost completely silent when seated and as a consequence, our energy expenditure is negligible…our expenditure goes up 15% when standing and doubles when ambling…purposeful walking can double or triple it! So, spending less time sitting seems to be the key to burning up more calories.
Prolonged sitting time has been linked to metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. This is thought to be the result of poor fat metabolism due to the decreased production of lipoprotein lipase in muscles when seated. Non-exercise activity reverses this process.
It appears our technological innovations have had insidious effects on our health. The antidote lies in freeing ourselves from the chair…can we afford to wait for governments and corporations to reengineer our workplaces? Probably not…we must all take responsibility for our health and those among us that have a predisposition towards energy conservation need to take active measures by simply standing and walking about more often and for longer periods during the day.
Most of the information in this post is inspired from the work of Dr James Levine, Professor in the Department of Endocrinology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN
A team of researchers have identified a new hormone named irisin. It’s produced by exercise and increases the metabolism and the sensitivity to blood sugar levels. This in turn may make us less susceptible to obesity and diabetes.
Yet more proof that exercise is beneficial…if we needed any more!
Researchers have recently postulated that exercise may help encourage healthy eating! How? By changing the structure and function of the brain! The result of which is an enhanced inhibitory control. What this means in layman’s terms is that we no longer have to succumb to the temptation or lack of restraint that causes our over indulgence in food.
So, in addition to increasing our metabolism and burning more calories, exercise also improves our diet. What are you waiting for?
Here are my tips to help prevent back pain, obesity, heart disease, cancer and death from over sitting:
- Stand whilst on public transport…there’ll be more than enough time to sit when you get to work
- Get up from your desk at least 1-2 times an hour (less than 5 minutes standing and walking around is sufficient)
- Drink more often, you’ll have to get up more frequently…to get a drink…and to go to the toilet
- Rather than send an email, why not walk over and speak to someone? (research has shown that walking at a leisurely pace is enough to reverse the metabolic changes caused by prolonged sitting)
- Don’t have lunch at your desk…go for a short walk…get some fresh air
- Organise your work tasks so that they involve frequent movement
- Here’s a little exercise you can do when you stand (breath in whilst you reach upwards and hold the position for about 5 seconds)…it will help your back
- Don’t use your car when your feet will do just as well
The clear message is that health can be maintained by including frequent short periods of standing and walking in our normal daily activity…little and often is the way forward!