Food industry has been at the receiving end during the last two decades attracting a slew of criticism, holding it responsible for all the ills that afflict the modern society in terms of various health disorders. Three distinct lines of study being pursued by different groups independently are opening up new possibilities that the human system per se will have to take some blame for the uncontrolled weight gains experienced by many people in spite of following diet regimes considered helpful in maintaining the body weight and BMI within the limits recommended. This does not mean that food industry has to go over board absolving itself of any role in this transformation that has made two thirds of all Americans either over weight or obese. The three studies involved unraveling of the peculiar way genes are working to by pass the brain in deciding what to eat and when to eat, the unsuspecting impact of obesogens in obesity development and the part played by the thyroid gland in changing the body weight, throw some light on the dynamics of body weight.
No doubt the food environment in affluent countries does not lend itself to any meaningful control on the part of the consumer to exercise any self discipline in selecting right type of foods as there are fantastic choices with tempting organoleptic credentials but very low nutrient density. It has to be admitted that foods containing high sugar, high salt and high fat dominate the market while healthy foods are too few in number. Besides healthy foods are invariably too expensive to be affordable to many economically not-well to do consumers, making them occasional foods while internationally recognized norms entail almost 50% of daily diet to be made of fruits and vegetables, the ultimate in human nutrition. Why the food industry persists with this practice of turning out almost 90% of its products with more sugar, salt and fat is to be seen in the context of the desire to improve its bottom line and it will be difficult to regiment the industry into a health provider under policing without considering genuine apprehension about its economic sustainability.
Coming to the role of genes it has been pointed out that there is a gluttony gene evolved out of the Bdnf gene which is responsible for over eating because of its influence on the signalling system between the brain and the appetite center. Leptin and Insulin are the two hormones associated with satiety and hunger and through their communication with the brain appetite or satiety signals are sent. After ingestion of a meal the chemicals released by these hormones send signals to activate the neurons in the hypothalamus region of the brain which triggers satiety and due to the action of the modified Bdnf gene, the satiety signal fails to reach the appetite control center resulting in more and more eating. Discovery of the role of FTO gene in obesity development is another significant development indicating that exercising control over eating is more difficult for those having any modification in this particular gene. It is reported that more than two thirds of the population have mutated versions of FTO gene making them susceptible to craving for foods high in sugar and fat.
Recently some studies have focused on the role of some chemicals being spewed into the environment and the food system which, besides being harmful to the body, also triggers increased fat synthesis leading to accumulation of fat. Increase in the number of fatty cells as well as enlarged size of fat cells, both result in bloating of the body, upsetting the BMI and leading eventually to obesity. A classical example is bis-Phenol A, a leachant getting into the food from poly carbonate packaging and bottling material and can lining compounds at ppm levels, not considered too dangerous till recently. But its influence on lipogenesis even when present in ppb levels in foods is receiving increased attention from scientists though conclusive evidence is still not on the table to demand for its total ban, though food and beverage industry by and large has voluntarily stopped their use, a couple of years ago. There are many Endocrine Disruptors, found among pesticide chemicals, antidepressant medications, perfluorooctanoic (PFOA) acid containing coating materials in non-stick cookwares, which also have obesogenic properties. The fact that 98% of Americans have PFOA in their blood is indeed some thing that must worry the safety experts.
Thyroid hormone is an important component of the human endocrine system with many functions attributed to its optimal activity. Too much of Thyroxine or too less of it can have many adverse consequences on a variety of body functions. Recent studies have brought out the close relationship between hypothyroidism and unnatural weight gain. As the Thyroid gland fails to produce sufficient Thyroxine needed by the body to ensure normal metabolism, food ingested invariably contribute to fat accumulation in the body. Iodine deficiency and impaired Thyroid gland performance can contribute to this situation. While iodine deficiency is not very common due to wide use of iodized salt these days, because of tireless campaign by health activists and governments in some countries, salt intake is coming down significantly with a potential to reduce iodine intake also. Iodine deficiency can be more conspicuous among consumers not used to sea foods which is a major source of this micro nutrient. Unfortunately hypothyroidism is not easily diagnosed as the symptoms associated with it like fatigue, cold, constipation, dry skin and hair, sore muscles, slowed down thinking, memory loss, mood swings etc are too common to be alarmed about and probably many people may not be even aware of such deficiency condition.
Confounding the confusion further, sporadic reports linking Vitamin D deficiency to obesity need to be taken seriously in countries farther away from equator where inadequate exposure to Sun can slow down the synthesis of this vitamin among the population there. Though recommended daily intake is pegged at 200-600 IU depending on the age of an individual, recent studies indicate that a more appropriate optimal figure would be double this level considering that a significant segment of the population are over weight with their Vitamin D conversion rate to Calcitriol, the active hormonal form, being insufficient. Vitamin D deficiency also contributes to Calcium deficiency which in turn increases the production of Synthase enzyme that is involved in conversion of calories into fat. The Vitamin D -Obesity relationship is more reflected by decreased absorption of this vitamin in obese individuals and whether Obesity creates Vitamin D deficiency or vice-versa is still not clear.
All considered the enemy that is manifested in the form of obesity seems to be within the individual and unless the parameters mentioned above are addressed properly, blaming others for this distortion in human health landscape is not going to serve any purpose. Under the prevailing conditions in different countries, addressing the problem of gluttony and over weight will have to take into consideration the basic health parameters of each individual vulnerable to weight gain and then make attempts to over come them. Whether it is the genetic factor or hypothyroidism or obesogen exposure or Vitamin D deficiency that make people fatty, appropriate measures need to be taken to correct the diets, evolve exercise regimes and create market conditions to reduce exposure to so called junk foods. It is not proper that the food industry alone is hammered for a situation caused by diverse factors illustrated above and in stead the world as a whole must look for effective and collective solutions to obviate the problem.