Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Food Reward: a Dominant Factor in Obesity, Part I

A Curious Finding

It all started with one little sentence buried in a paper about obese rats. I was reading about how rats become obese when they're given chocolate Ensure, the "meal replacement drink", when I came across this:
...neither [obesity-prone] nor [obesity-resistant] rats will overeat on either vanilla- or strawberry-flavored Ensure.
The only meaningful difference between chocolate, vanilla and strawberry Ensure is the flavor, yet rats eating the chocolate variety overate, rapidly gained fat and became metabolically ill, while rats eating the other flavors didn't (1). Furthermore, the study suggested that the food's flavor determined, in part, what amount of fatness the rats' bodies "defended."

As I explained in previous posts, the human (and rodent) brain regulates the amount of fat the body carries, in a manner similar to how the brain regulates blood pressure, body temperature, blood oxygenation and blood pH (2). That fact, in addition to several other lines of evidence, suggests that obesity probably results from a change in this regulatory system. I refer to the amount of body fat that the brain defends as the "body fat setpoint", however it's clear that the setpoint is dependent on diet and lifestyle factors. The implication of this paper that I could not escape is that a food's flavor influences body fatness and probably the body fat setpoint.

An Introduction to Food Reward

The brain contains a sophisticated system that assigns a value judgment to everything we experience, integrating a vast amount of information into a one-dimensional rating system that labels things from awesome to terrible. This is the system that decides whether we should seek out a particular experience, or avoid it. For example, if you burn yourself each time you touch the burner on your stove, your brain will label that action as bad and it will discourage you from touching it again. On the other hand, if you feel good every time you're cold and put on a sweater, your brain will encourage that behavior. In the psychology literature, this phenomenon is called "reward," and it's critical to survival.

The brain assigns reward to, and seeks out, experiences that it perceives as positive, and discourages behaviors that it views as threatening. Drugs of abuse plug directly into reward pathways, bypassing the external routes that would typically trigger reward. Although this system has been studied most in the context of drug addiction, it evolved to deal with natural environmental stimuli, not drugs.

As food is one of the most important elements of survival, the brain's reward system is highly attuned to food's rewarding properties. The brain uses input from smell, taste, touch, social cues, and numerous signals from the digestive tract* to assign a reward value to foods. Experiments in rats and humans have outlined some of the qualities of food that are inherently rewarding:
  • Fat
  • Starch
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Meatiness (glutamate)
  • The absence of bitterness
  • Certain textures (e.g., soft or liquid calories, crunchy foods)
  • Certain aromas (e.g., esters found in many fruits)
  • Calorie density ("heavy" food)
We are generally born liking the qualities listed above, and aromas and flavors that are associated with these qualities become rewarding over time. For example, beer tastes terrible the first time you drink it because it's bitter, but after you drink it a few times and your brain catches wind that there are calories and a drug in there, it often begins tasting good. The same applies to many vegetables. Children are generally not fond of vegetables, but if you serve them spinach smothered in butter enough times, they'll learn to like it by the time they're adults.

The human brain evolved to deal with a certain range of rewarding experiences. It didn't evolve to constructively manage strong drugs of abuse such as heroin and crack cocaine, which overstimulate reward pathways, leading to the pathological drug seeking behaviors that characterize addiction. These drugs are "superstimuli" that exceed our reward system's normal operating parameters. Over the next few posts, I'll try to convince you that in a similar manner, industrially processed food, which has been professionally crafted to maximize its rewarding properties, is a superstimulus that exceeds the brain's normal operating parameters, leading to an increase in body fatness and other negative consequences.

* Nerves measure stomach distension. A number of of gut-derived paracrine and endocrine signals, including CCK, PYY, ghrelin, GLP-1 and many others potentially participate in food reward sensing, some by acting directly on the brain via the circulation, and others by signaling indirectly via the vagus nerve. More on this later.

Food Variety, Calorie Intake, and Weight Gain

Let's kick off this post with a quote from a 2001 review paper (1):
Increased variety in the food supply may contribute to the development and maintenance of obesity.  Thirty-nine studies examining dietary variety, energy intake, and body composition are reviewed. Animal and human studies show that food consumption increases when there is more variety in a meal or diet and that greater dietary variety is associated with increased body weight and fat.
This may seem counterintuitive, since variety in the diet is generally seen as a good thing.  In some ways, it is a good thing, however in this post we'll see that it can have a downside.
Read more »

Beyond Ötzi: European Evolutionary History and its Relevance to Diet. Part I

In the previous post, I explained that Otzi descended in large part from early adopters of agriculture in the Middle East or nearby.  What I'll explain in further posts is that Otzi was not a genetic anomaly: he was part of a wave of agricultural migrants that washed over Europe thousands of years ago, spreading their genes throughout.  Not only that, Otzi represents a halfway point in the evolutionary process that transformed Paleolithic humans into modern humans.

Did Agriculture in Europe Spread by Cultural Transmission or by Population Replacement?

There's a long-standing debate in the anthropology community over how agriculture spread throughout Europe.  One camp proposes that agriculture spread by a cultural route, and that European hunter-gatherers simply settled down and began planting grains.  The other camp suggests that European hunter-gatherers were replaced (totally or partially) by waves of agriculturalist immigrants from the Middle East that were culturally and genetically better adapted to the agricultural diet and lifestyle.  These are two extreme positions, and I think almost everyone would agree at this point that the truth lies somewhere in between: modern Europeans are a mix of genetic lineages, some of which originate from the earliest Middle Eastern agriculturalists who expanded into Europe, and some of which originate from indigenous hunter-gatherer groups including a small contribution from neanderthals.  We know that modern-day Europeans are not simply Paleolithic mammoth eaters who reluctantly settled down and began farming. 

Read more »

Friday, April 24, 2015

Lessons From Ötzi, the Tyrolean Ice Man. Part III

There are two reasons why I chose this time to write about Otzi.  The first is that I've been looking for a good excuse to revisit human evolutionary history, particularly that of Europeans, and what it does and doesn't tell us about the "optimal" human diet.  The second is that Otzi's full genome was sequenced and described in a recent issue of Nature Communications (1).  A "genome" is the full complement of genes an organism carries.  So what that means is that researchers have sequenced almost all of his genes. 

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: Salt, Sugar, Fat

Michael Moss is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who has made a career writing about the US food system.  In his latest book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, he attempts to explain how the processed food industry has been so successful at increasing its control over US "stomach share".  Although the book doesn't focus on the obesity epidemic, the relevance is obvious.  Salt, Sugar, Fat is required reading for anyone who wants to understand why obesity is becoming more common in the US and throughout the world.

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Upcoming Talks

I'll be giving at least two talks at conferences this year:

Ancestral Health Symposium; "The Human Ecological Niche and Modern Health"; August 5-6 in Los Angeles. This is going to be a great conference. Many of my favorite health/nutrition writers will be presenting. Organizer Brent Pottenger and I collaborated on designing the symposium's name so I hope you like it.

My talk will be titled "Obesity; Old Solutions to a New Problem." I'll be presenting some of my emerging thoughts on obesity. I expect to ruffle some feathers!

Tickets are going fast so reserve one today! I doubt there will be any left two weeks from now.

TEDx Harvard Law; "Food Policy and Public Health"; Oct 21 at Harvard. My talk is tentatively titled "The American Diet: a Historical Perspective." This topic interests me because it helps us frame the discussion on why chronic disease is so prevalent today, and what are the appropriate public health measures to combat it. This should also be a great conference.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Lessons From Ötzi, the Tyrolean Ice Man. Part II

Otzi's Diet

Otzi's digestive tract contains the remains of three meals.  They were composed of cooked grains (wheat bread and wheat grains), meat, roots, fruit and seeds (1, 2).  The meat came from three different animals-- chamois, red deer and ibex.  The "wheat" was actually not what we would think of as modern wheat, but an ancestral variety called einkorn.

Isotope analysis indicates that Otzi's habitual diet was primarily centered around plant foods, likely heavily dependent on grains but also incorporating a variety of other plants (3).  He died in the spring with a belly full of einkorn wheat.  Since wheat is harvested in the fall, this suggests that his culture stored grain and was dependent on it for most if not all of the year.  However, he also clearly ate meat and used leather made from his prey.  Researchers are still debating the quantity of meat in his diet, but it was probably secondary to grains and other plant foods. It isn't known whether or not he consumed dairy.

Read more »

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Exercise and Food Intake

The New York Times just published an article reviewing some of the recent research on exercise, food intake and food reward, titled "Does Exercise Make You Overeat?".  I was planning to write about this at some point, but I don't know when I'd be able to get around to it, and the NYT article is a fair treatment of the subject, so I'll just point you to the article.

Basically, burning calories through exercise causes some people to eat more, but not everyone does, and a few people actually eat less.  Alex Hutchinson discussed this point recently on his blog (1).  Part of it depends on how much fat you carry-- if you're already lean, the body is more likely to increase hunger because it very much dislikes going too low in body fat.  Most overweight/obese people do not totally make up for the calories they burn through exercise by eating more, so they lose fat.  There is a lot of individual variability here.  The average obese person won't lose a substantial amount of fat through exercise alone.  However, everyone knows someone who lost 50+ pounds through exercise alone, and the controlled trials support that it happens in a minority of people.  On the other side of the spectrum, I have a friend who gained fat while training for a marathon, and lost it afterward. 

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Obesity and the Fluid-in, Fluid-out Therapy for Edema

I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Arya M. Sharma here at the University of Washington. Dr. Sharma is a Canadian clinician who specializes in the treatment of obesity. He gave the UW Science in Medicine lecture, which is a prestigious invited lecture.

He spent a little bit of time pointing out the fallacy behind conventional obesity treatment. He used the analogy of edema, which is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the body.

Since we know that the amount of fluid contained in the body depends on the amount of fluid entering the body and the amount of fluid leaving the body, the treatment for edema is obvious: drink less, pee more.

Of course, this makes no sense. It doesn't address the underlying cause of edema and it will not help the patient. Yet we apply that exact same logic to fat loss. Since the amount of energy contained in the body (in the form of fat) depends on the amount entering and the amount leaving, the solution is easy: eat less, move more. Well, yes, if you can stick to that program it will cause fat loss. But that's equivalent to telling someone with edema to drink less water. It will cause a loss of fluid, but it won't correct the underlying problem that caused excessive fluid retention in the first place.

For example, if you have edema because your heart isn't pumping effectively (cardiac insufficiency), the heart is the problem that must be addressed. Any other treatment is purely symptomatic and is not a cure.

The same applies to obesity. If you don't correct the alteration in the system that causes an obese person to 'defend' his elevated fat mass against changes*, anything you do is symptomatic treatment and is unlikely to be very effective in the long term. My goal is to develop a method that goes beyond symptomatic treatment and allows the body to naturally return to a lower fat mass. I've been doing a lot of reading and I have a simple new idea that I feel confident in. It also neatly explains the results of a variety of weight loss diets. I've dropped a few hints here and there, but I'll be formally unveiling it in the next couple of months. Stay tuned.

* The body fat homeostasis system. The core element appears to be a negative feedback loop between body fat (via leptin, and insulin to a lesser degree) and the brain (primarily the hypothalamus, but other regions are involved). There are many other elements in the system, but that one seems to set the 'gain' on all the others and guides long-term fat mass homeostasis. The brain is the gatekeeper of both energy intake and energy expenditure, and unconscious processes strongly suggest appropriate levels for both factors according to the brain's perceived homeostatic needs. Those suggestions can be overridden consciously, but it requires a perpetual high degree of discipline, whereas someone who has been lean all her life doesn't require discipline to remain lean because her brain is suggesting behaviors that naturally defend leanness. I know what I'm saying here may seem controversial to some people reading this, because it's contrary to what they've read on the internet or in the popular press, but it's not particularly controversial in my field. In fact, you'll find most of this stuff in general neuroscience textbooks dating back more than 10 years (e.g., Eric Kandel and colleagues, Principles of Neuroscience).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Next Primal Chef Event Sunday 5/20

Gil Butler has been working on a television show called Primal Chef, where he invites local chefs to make creative dishes from a list of Paleo ingredients, in a designated amount of time.  The format is reminiscent of Iron Chef.  The food is judged afterward by figures in the Paleo community.  Robb Wolf was a judge on the first episode.

Gil has invited me to be a judge on the next show, along with Sara Fragoso and Dr. Tim Gerstmar.  The next day, Sunday April 20th, Gil is organizing a catered Primal Chef event in Seattle, with Paleo dinner, speakers, entertainment, prizes, and a screening of part of Paleo Chef episode 1.  You can read the details and sign up here.  I won't be speaking because I don't have time to put together another talk right now, but I will be attending the event. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

US Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fat Consumption over the Last Century

Omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) are essential nutrients that play many important roles in the body. They are highly bioactive, and so any deviation from ancestral intake norms should probably be viewed with suspicion. I've expressed my opinion many times on this blog that omega-6 consumption is currently too high due to our high intake of refined seed oils (corn, soybean, sunflower, etc.) in industrial nations. Although it's clear that the quantity of omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fat have changed over the last century, no one had ever published a paper that attempted to systematically quantify it until last month (1).

Drs. Chris Ramsden and Joseph Hibbeln worked on this paper (the first author was Dr. Tanya Blasbalg and the senior author was Dr. Robert Rawlings)-- they were the first and second authors of a different review article I reviewed recently (2). Their new paper is a great reference that I'm sure I'll cite many times. I'm going to briefly review it and highlight a few key points.

1. The intake of omega-6 linoleic acid has increased quite a bit since 1909. It would have been roughly 2.3% of calories in 1909, while in 1999 it was 7.2%. That represents an increase of 213%. Linoleic acid is the form of omega-6 that predominates in seed oils.

2. The intake of omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid has also increased, for reasons that I'll explain below. It changed from 0.35% of calories to 0.72%, an increase of 109%.

3. The intake of long-chain omega-6 and omega-3 fats have decreased. These are the highly bioactive fats for which linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid are precursors. Arachidonic acid, DHA, DPA and EPA intakes have declined. This mostly has to do with changing husbandry practices and the replacement of animal fats with seed oils in the diet.

4. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats has increased. There is still quite a bit of debate over whether the ratios matter, or simply the absolute amount of each. I maintain that there is enough evidence from highly controlled animal studies and the basic biochemistry of PUFAs to tentatively conclude that the ratio is important. At a minimum, we know that excess linoleic acid inhibits omega-3 metabolism (3, 4, 5, 6). The omega-6:3 ratio increased from 5.4:1 to 9.6:1 between 1909 and 2009, a 78% increase.

5. The biggest factor in both linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid intake changes was the astonishing rise in soybean oil consumption. Soybean oil consumption increased from virtually nothing to 7.4% of total calories, eclipsing all sources of calories besides sugar, dairy and grains! That's because processed food is stuffed with it. It's essentially a byproduct of defatted soybean meal-- the second most important animal feed after corn. Check out this graph from the paper:

I think this paper is an important piece of the puzzle as we try to figure out what happened to nutrition and health in the US over the last century.

Lessons From Ötzi, the Tyrolean Ice Man. Part I

This is Otzi, or at least a reconstruction of what he might have looked like.  5,300 years ago, he laid down on a glacier near the border between modern-day Italy and Austria, under unpleasant circumstances.  He was quickly frozen into the glacier.  In 1991, his slumber was rudely interrupted by two German tourists, which eventually landed him in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy. 

Otzi is Europe's oldest natural human mummy, and as such, he's an important window into the history of the human species in Europe.  His genome has been sequenced, and it offers us clues about the genetic history of modern Europeans.

Otzi's Story

Read more »

Monday, April 6, 2015

Global Meat Production, 1961-2009

Total global meat production per person has steadily increased from 0.13 lbs per day in 1961 to 0.29 lbs per day in 2009*, a 120 percent increase over the last half century (currently in the US, average meat consumption is about half a pound per day).  Since meat consumption in the US and Europe has only increased modestly over time, this change mostly reflects greatly increased meat consumption over the last half century in developing countries** in Asia, Africa and South America.  In 1961, it's likely that most of the 0.13 pounds per day of meat was consumed in affluent countries such as the US, with not much consumed elsewhere (with some exceptions).  Historically, meat has always been expensive relative to other food sources in agricultural societies, so it's eaten by those who can afford it.
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Sunday, April 5, 2015


I recently bought the book Food in the United States, 1820s-1890. I came across an ad for an interesting product that was sold in the late 1800s called Fat-ten-u. Check your calendars, it's not April fools day anymore; this is for real. Fat-ten-u was a dietary supplement guaranteed to "make the thin plump and rosy with honest fleshiness of form." I found several more ads for it online, and they feature drawings of despondent, lean women and drawings of happy overweight women accompanied by enthusiastic testimonials such as this:
"FAT-TEN-U FOODS increased my weight 39 pounds, gave me new womanly vigor and developed me finely. My two sisters also use FAT-TEN-U and because of our newly found vigor we have taken up Grecian dancing and have roles in all local productions."
I'm dying to know what was in this stuff, but I can't find the ingredients anywhere.

I find this rather extraordinary, for two reasons:
  • Social norms have clearly changed since the late 1800s. Today, leanness is typically considered more attractive than plumpness.
  • Women had to make an effort to become overweight in the late 1800s. In 2015, roughly two-thirds of US women are considered overweight or obese, despite the fact that most of them would rather be lean.
A rhetorical question: did everyone count calories in the 1800s, or did their diet and lifestyle naturally promote leanness? The existence of Fat-ten-u is consistent with the idea that our bodies naturally "defended" a lean body composition more effectively in the late 1800s, when our diets were less industrialized. This is supported by the only reliable data on obesity prevalence in the 1890s I'm aware of: body height and weight measurements from over 35,000 Union civil war veterans aged 40-69 years old (1). In that group of Caucasian men, obesity was about 10% of what it is today in the same age group. Whether or not you believe that this sample was representative of the population at large, I can't imagine any demographic in the modern US with an obesity prevalence of 3 percent (certainly not 60 year old war veterans).

Here are two more ads for Fat-ten-u and "Corpula foods" for your viewing pleasure:

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Eocene Diet Follow-up

Now that WHS readers around the globe have adopted the Eocene Diet and are losing weight at an alarming rate, it's time to explain the post a little more.  First, credit where credit is due: Melissa McEwen made a similar argument in her 2015 AHS talk, where she rolled out the "Cambrian Explosion Diet", which beats the Eocene Diet by about 470 million years.  It was probably in the back of my head somewhere when I came up with the idea.

April Fools day is good for a laugh, but humor often has a grain of truth in it.  In this case, the post was a jumping off point for discussing human evolution and what it has to say about the "optimal" human diet, if such a thing exists.  Here's a preview: evolution is a continuous process that has shaped our ancestors' genomes for every generation since the beginning of life.  It didn't end with the Paleolithic, in fact it accelerated, and most of us today carry meaningful adaptations to the Neolithic diet and lifestyle. 

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Glucagon, Dietary Protein, and Low-Carbohydrate Diets

Glucagon is a hormone that plays an important role in blood glucose control.  Like insulin, it's secreted by the pancreas, though it's secreted by a different cell population than insulin (alpha vs. beta cells).  In some ways, glucagon opposes insulin.  However, the role of glucagon in metabolism is frequently misunderstood in diet-health circles.

The liver normally stores glucose in the form of glycogen and releases it into the bloodstream as needed.  It can also manufacture glucose from glycerol, lactate, and certain amino acids.  Glucagon's main job is to keep blood glucose from dipping too low by making sure the liver releases enough glucose.  There are a few situations where this is particularly important:

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Great New Product

Warning -- Satire -- April Fool's Post

Do you feel sad sometimes? Are you tired when you get up in the morning? Do you get winded running sprint intervals? I've just found a great new product that I think can help. It's called bozolol.

Bozolol is an amazing nutritional supplement extracted from the bozolol berry, harvested wild in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. To the native Ilotaca tribe, the bozolol berry is sacred because it alters the molecules in your brain to make you smarter AND sexier.

Here's how it works: bozolol actually
increases the uptake of fat-soluble vitamins from your food, while reducing inflammation in the arteries and helping you shed fat faster than a pork roast! Guaranteed! Learn more about it here

April fools!

The Eocene Diet

Warning -- Satire -- April Fool's Post

65 million years ago, a massive asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula, creating a giant dust cloud that contributed to the extinction of terrestrial dinosaurs.  In the resulting re-adjustment of global ecosystems, a new plant tissue evolved, which paved the way for the eventual appearance of humans: fruit.  Fruit represents a finely crafted symbiosis between plants and animals, in which the plant provides a nourishing morsel, and the animal disperses the plant's seeds inside a packet of rich fertilizer.

Fruit was such a powerful selective pressure that mammals quickly evolved to exploit it more effectively, developing adaptations for life in the forest canopy.  One result of this was the rapid emergence of primates, carrying physical, digestive and metabolic adaptations for the acquisition and consumption of fruit and leaves.  Primates also continued eating insects, a vestige of our early mammalian heritage. 

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Are Animal Crackers Paleo?

Warning -- Satire -- April Fool's Post

Every child loves animal crackers, those sweet and crunchy animal-shaped biscuits.  But are they compatible with a Paleo diet?  Some people might think they already know the answer, but consider this: our ancestors evolved on the African savanna, eating the plants and animals found there.  Inside each box of animal crackers is an assortment of tiny savanna creatures such as giraffes and elephants.

To get to the bottom of this, I interviewed Robert Pearson, CEO of Animal Cracker Products Inc., who explained to me how these crackers are made.

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