A New Theory of Obesity
Nutrition researcher Kevin Hall strives to project a Zen-like state of equanimity. In his often contentious field, he says he is more bemused than frustrated by the tendency of other scientists to “cling to pet theories despite overwhelming evidence that they are mistaken.” Some of these experts, he tells me with a sly smile, “have a fascinating ability to rationalize away studies that don’t support their views.”
Among those views is the idea that particular nutrients such as fats, carbs or sugars are to blame for our alarming obesity pandemic. (Globally the prevalence of obesity nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016, according to the World Health Organization. The rise accompanies related health threats that include heart disease and diabetes.) But Hall, who works at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, where he runs the Integrative Physiology section, has run experiments that point fingers at a different culprit. His studies suggest that a dramatic shift in how we make the food we eat—pulling ingredients apart and then reconstituting them into things like frosted snack cakes and ready-to-eat meals from the supermarket freezer—bears the brunt of the blame. This “ultraprocessed” food, he and a growing number of other scientists think, disrupts gut-brain signals that normally tell us that we have had enough, and this failed signaling leads to overeating.
Eating large amounts of ultraprocessed foods may actually change brain circuitry in ways that increase sensitivity to food cues, adds Kent Berridge, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan. He has shown this effect in rodents. “When you give rats junk-food diets, some gain weight, but others do not. In those that became obese, their dopamine systems changed, and they became hypersensitive to food cues—they became superfocused on that one reward. They showed no more pleasure, but they did show more wanting, and that wanting led to more actions—that is, more food-seeking behavior.”
Read the full article at Scientific American.