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Why overeating may not be the primary cause of the obesity epidemic

A new study claims that obesity is the result of  excessive consumption of foods with a high glycemic load, especially rapidly digestible carbohydrates

It isn't as simple as eat less and move more
It isn't as simple as eat less and move more (Diana Polekhina)

If you've weighed more than what is medically considered ideal or suddenly put on a few kilos, I'm sure you've heard this from well-meaning relatives: eat less and exercise, So you start cutting back on your calories and begin logging10,000 steps a day. One week later, you step on the scale again only to find you've gained another kilo. “My metabolism is broken,” you tell yourself and give up immediately.

Sounds familiar? You're not alone. And yes, there may be a grain of truth in what you think.  According to a new study, modern dietary patterns, characterised by excessive consumption of foods with a high glycemic load--processed carbohydrates mostly--have damaged our metabolic systems. “These foods cause hormonal responses that fundamentally change our metabolism, driving fat storage, weight gain, and obesity,” says the study, pointing out that overeating alone isn't the main cause of obesity. 

Also read: How flexible dieting can help you lose weight.

The study's findings, which was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, must come as a relief of sorts to overweight and obese people who often end up being told that their excess weight is simply the result of gluttony and sloth.  According to the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans losing weight “requires adults to reduce the number of calories they get from foods and beverages and increase the amount expended through physical activity,” it says. However, the study says that this approach to weight management is based on the century-old energy balance model, which states that weight gain is caused by consuming more energy than we expend. “By this thinking, overeating, coupled with insufficient physical activity, is driving the obesity epidemic,” it says. 

This is an overly simplistic approach to weight management that ignores the complexity of the disease. Yes, excess food consumption and inactivity can exacerbate the condition, but it isn't only that. Mental health, hormones, drugs, genes, injury, age, sleep, stress levels, and stage of life also greatly impact your weight, among other things.

This study explores an alternate model, the carbohydrate-insulin model, claiming that this model offers a better explanation for obesity and weight gain. However, in an interview with ANI, lead author Dr David Ludwig, Endocrinologist at Boston Children's Hospital and Professor at Harvard Medical School,  says that the energy balance model doesn't help us understand the biological causes of weight gain. “During a growth spurt, for instance, adolescents may increase food intake by 1,000 calories a day. But does their overeating cause the growth spurt, or does the growth spurt cause the adolescent to get hungry and overeat?” he points out.

Also read: Why a keto diet can be bad for your gut health

In short, what the carbohydrate-insulin model is basically claiming is this: you're not fat because you eat too much. Instead, it seems to imply that the weight gain is a direct result of  “modern dietary patterns characterised by excessive consumption of foods with a high glycemic load: in particular, processed, rapidly digestible carbohydrates.” As ANI points out, we are constantly surrounded by highly palatable, heavily marketed, cheap processed foods. 

According to the study, when we eat these highly processed foods, the body increases insulin secretion and suppresses glucagon secretion. “This, in turn, signals fat cells to store more calories, leaving fewer calories available to fuel muscles and other metabolically active tissues,” it says, adding that the brain, in turn, believes that the body isn't getting enough energy. This, in turn, leads to feelings of hunger. “In addition, metabolism may slow down in the body's attempt to conserve fuel. Thus, we tend to remain hungry, even as we continue to gain excess fat.”

So yes, it isn't just how much we eat, but also how the food on our plates affects our hormones and overall metabolic systems, something the energy balance model completely ignores.  So no, the old theory that whether you get 100 calories out of cookies or a bowl of plain yoghurt doesn't matter may not necessarily hold good anymore.  

This may change our approach to weight management and obesity completely. Instead of eating less--something that most people struggles with--changing what you eat may be key to permanent weight loss. According to Dr Ludwig, reducing consumption of the rapidly digestible carbohydrates that flooded the food supply during the low-fat diet era lessens the underlying drive to store body fat. “As a result, people may lose weight with less hunger and struggle,” he says, adding, however, that further research was needed. 

(With inputs from ANI)


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