What makes us fat?
We all know that there is a recognised epidemic of obesity across the western world that shows no signs of diminishing and yet we have never had such amazing access to fresh food from around the world, we have access to more information than ever from the internet and we can access health, fitness and exercise information 24/7.
So what happened to us all and why, despite better education, better nutrition and better health care are so many of us overweight, obese and sick?
It’s not as simple as to say that we all eat too much or are more sedentary than in previous years, although that is definitely a factor; it’s far more a case of WHAT we eat.
50 years ago or so the concept of processed foods was in its infancy and we were a very long way from having a McDonalds or Starbucks on every corner! The local village shop wasn’t full of ready meals, no one had a microwave and the nearest we got to processed food was tinned or, if you were very lucky something frozen! I am old enough to remember when we didn’t have a freezer and the local shop sold ½lb of frozen peas in little bags – yes I am that old!
These days the western diet is rich in carbs with sugars delivered through High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) but is incredibly poor in nutrients – HFCS forms a part of almost every fast food, convenient thing we eat from being the sweetener in fizzy drinks to providing the glaze on baked goods. And there are suggestions that its very make up means that the more we consume the greater our craving for more…..
Marketing and adverting budgets have rocketed, products are advertised everywhere around us from glossy magazines to social media to internet and mobile phones. Supermarkets are massive cathedrals dedicated to shopping with literally thousands of items and the simple act of choosing a loaf of bread becomes an exercise in choice, how many different brands and types of bread do we really need? (Well. In my view it’s none but you get my point!)
The discovery of HFCS in the last century led the way for the explosion in mass production, it was significantly cheaper than sugar meaning that product size could increase, the tastes inevitably changed but the costs plummeted and suddenly consumers had access to masses of cheap cereals, cheap biscuits, cakes and ready meals. Combined with huge technological improvements driving the price of white goods downwards and we unwittingly created the prefect nutritional storm
Foods became cheap and plentiful; we had the technology to cook food quickly and our access to global products and the internet meant we had thousands of new foods to choose from. We had less physical lives but we were consuming almost twice as many calories per day as were really needed.
There is a suggestion from some quarters that not only is HFCS significantly sweeter than sugar it also provides an addictive hit in a similar way to that provided by less legal means – resulting in huge cravings and the urge to constantly eat more of the wrong thing.
“When you’re eating food that is highly hedonic, it sort of takes over your brain” David Kessler Former head, US Food and Drug Administration
There are three main types of sugar
- Sucrose – the sugar we put on our cereals and in our coffee; it contains both glucose and fructose
- Glucose – is found in small amounts in fruits and is made from corn starch
- Fructose – occurs naturally in all fruits and is the central part of HFCS
On its own HFCS isn’t the enemy but it’s rather the sheer quantity we consume on a regular basis that makes it so damaging to our health and our waistlines. When we consume HFCS it is easily converted to fat in the body which on its own is a sufficient cause of weight gain but there is evidence that suggests that it also suppresses the levels of leptin found in the body.
Leptin is one of those really useful hormones that sloshes around regulating our appetite and cravings; it basically sends a message from your fat cells to your brain to tell it to stop eating cos you have had enough – one of the reasons why we should eat more slowly, it takes time for the signal to reach our brains!
However, in a similar way to insulin resistance develops, if there is far too much sugar in your body (specifically your liver) the production of leptin is restricted and the messages don’t get through, you never get told you have had enough and you carry on eating, polishing off more calories than your body needs or can process.
So how did we get like this?
For a number of years scientists and experts have argued over the cause of heart disease and whether the culprit was too much sugar or too much fat; despite many disagreements the consensus at that time was that it was fat. And so was born the concept of ‘low fat’. But, and it’s a big but, how do you strip out the fat but still make the product palatable to the fickle consumer?
You add sugar or rather HFCS or aspartame which makes the product saleable, tasty and still allows the industry a massive growth area by announcing the ‘low-fat’ credentials of multiple dubious products. And so overnight the shelves began to groan with the weight of low fat products such as yoghurt, butter-like spreads, desserts, biscuits – to be honest the list in endless!
And thanks to clever advertising and marketing the public fell for the line that this was healthier and starting buying the products all the time and the more we ate, the more we wanted; the more we wanted, the bigger our waistlines and the slower our lives.
And so here we are, overweight and craving the very foods that are causing our problems. Obesity and morbid-obesity is an increasing problem and the ripples it causes affects our education and health care systems and puts additional pressure on already stretched resources.
A worrying thought is that the food and beverage industry are, in part, culpable for the situation we have and yet they are the very people that are at the heart of obesity campaigns.
“The silver lining in the challenge of obesity is that even though it’s a problem, it creates a galvanising effect.
“Companies need to make money, and consumers need to eat food that is convenient and tastes good, and from the public health perspective we need products that are healthier. And all those need to come together.” former Coca-Cola executive Hank Cardello.
Isn’t that a bit like putting a fox in charge of a hen-house?!