Programmed for Obesity?

by kwolosz on October 9, 2012

Part two of my series on obesity, focusing on food additives.

Image courtesy of Robb Wolfe

Sure, as a nation we are overeating and not exercising nearly enough. But is the balance of calories in (consumption) and calories out (exercise) the only equation to reach and maintain a healthy weight?

Well, the answer to that is “it depends”. At one end, we are responsible for our food choices and the discipline that follows an active lifestyle. But, it may not be as simple. The obesity epidemic may not be about calories alone, rather the chemicals in food additives and processed foods, like emulsifiers and saccharin, which are changing fat cell metabolism in the body.

According to biochemist Dr. Barbara Corkey, former director of the Obesity Research Center at Boston Medical Center and past editor of the medical journal Obesity, “overeating does not cause obesity.” With over five decades of metabolism research, Dr. Corkey has focused her research on metabolic disease, specifically the breakdown of pancreatic beta cells, which produce insulin. Insulin is a key hormone that helps the body convert food into energy and stores it as either glucose or fat.

A new direction of her research questions whether the overwhelming 4,000 additives in the U.S. food supply are contributing to the obesity epidemic. Even more, Dr. Corkey believes that certain environmental triggers, such as pesticides and arsenic poisoning are associated with obesity.

Image courtesy of Dr. Barbara Corkey, director of the Obesity Research Center at Boston Medical Center

After screening nearly 500 food additives for effects on fat, liver and beta cell tissues, preliminary findings flagged two food additives; monoglycerides and saccharin. A widely used class of emulsifier’s known as monoglycerides are found in many processed foods like baked goods, creams, and peanut butter. Saccharin is a common artificial sweetener that is nearly 300 times sweeter than table sugar, found in soda, juice and chewing gum. Only within the last two years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removed saccharin as a hazardous substance.

Normally, calcium stimulates beta cells to create insulin and in production they increase oxygen consumption. Both additives, monoglyceride and saccharin, made beta cells abnormally secrete insulin. This process released molecules called reactive oxygen species, which have been linked in cell damage, inflammation and obesity.

The suspected link between obesity and exposure to these ‘endocrine disrupters’, or the chemical’s effecting our hormones, has the ability to alter hormones that control both fat storage and glucose regulation. Referred to as “obesogens”, these abnormal changes at the cellular level that trigger fat-cell activity also categorize chemicals that may promote obesity in both humans and animals.

This intriguing, but preliminary, finding might lead to a new understanding on background levels of certain food additives that cause subtle changes in metabolic tissues and pathways. Fundamentally, by identifying these problematic food additives and better understanding how they effect humans at the cellular level, innovative research could lead to a modified prevention and/or treatment of obesity.

You can find more information on Dr. Corkey’s research on food additives here.

Next week I will look at the role of the media and obesity.

***Updated: October 9, 2012 to include a link to Dr. Barbara Corkey’s research and to clarify food additives and beta cell/insulin production***