What’s Wrong With Our Food? Quantity Or Quality?

What’s Wrong With Our Food? Quantity Or Quality?

Fri 17 Jan 2014

Story by Robert H. Lustig, M.D., M.S.L.

Jamie Oliver gets it. Here’s a chef who cares more about the ingredients than the recipe. The fanciest preparation can't make up for bad food. Garbage in, garbage out. The quantity of food can make you fat, but it's the quality of the food that will make you sick. And sick is where the money goes. Diabetes, high blood pressure, lipid problems, heart disease, fatty liver disease, cancer, dementia. The diseases that make up the “metabolic syndrome”. These are the diseases that will kill you. And these are the diseases of bad food.

Everyone thinks it’s about the calories. Overconsumption of total calories drives obesity. Yet we humans have a hormone called leptin, made by our fat cells, which is supposed to tell our brain to stop. But leptin now doesn’t work, which leads to “brain starvation”, and which is why 30% of Britain and 33% of America are obese. But why did leptin stop working? And why do some obese people get metabolic syndrome but others don’t; and why do normal weight people also get metabolic syndrome? Obesity prevalence is increasing worldwide by 1% per year, while diabetes prevalence is increasing by 4% per year. The quantity of calories — obesity — doesn’t explain diabetes. Rather, the quality of those calories determine whether you can suffer from metabolic syndrome — and the leptin disconnect, by the way.

Indeed, three deficiencies and five excesses within our Western Diet, which has become the processed food diet, also the Industrial Global Diet, have been specifically implicated in the metabolic syndrome, unrelated to their effects on obesity.

1. Too little fiber
There are two kinds of fiber: soluble, which is what holds jelly together; and insoluble, like the stringy stuff in celery. When you consume both, it forms a gelatinous barrier along the intestinal wall, which delays the intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients — and that’s good. This limits the blood sugar rise, which limits the insulin response, which limits how much energy is stored in fat cells, and which does away with the leptin disconnect. When you consume fiber, you consume less.

2. Too few micronutrients
Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; all of which prevent cellular damage. These come in many shapes and sizes, but most come in fresh produce. Many epidemiologic studies demonstrate correlations between low blood levels of antioxidants and the metabolic syndrome. Two things contribute to low consumption of antioxidants. Once the produce is picked, frozen, cooked, or canned, the antioxidants start to decompose. And as we’ve cultivated our produce to be bigger and sweeter, it has lost some of its micronutrient content.

3 and 4. Too few omega-3 fatty acids and too many omega-6 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, made by algae and found in wild fish, serve as precursors to two fatty acids (docahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosopentanoic acid (EPA)), which are both anti-inflammatory and anti-Alzheimer’s. Conversely, omega-6 fatty acids, found in seed oils and corn-fed animals (meat, poultry, farmed fish), serve as precursors to arachidonic acid, which drives inflammation, an important component of metabolic syndrome. Nutritionists suggest that our ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be approximately 1:1. Currently our ratio is about 25:1.

5. Too many trans-fats
Trans-fats are synthetic fats that are added to food to prevent spoilage, as they don’t go rancid. The reason is that bacteria can’t digest these fats. Well, our mitochondria (the energy burning factories inside our cells) are repurposed bacteria. We can’t digest them either! So they line our livers and our arteries. Of note is that on November 7, 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that trans-fats are not “generally recognized as safe” anymore, insuring their eventual disappearance from the American food supply. But the European Food Safety Authority still allows them, although they suggest “keeping them as low as possible”.

6. Too many branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s)
BCAA’s (valine, leucine, and isoleucine) are essential amino acids that help build protein, such as muscle. And if you’re either growing or body-building, then BCAA’s are good. But if you’re neither, you don’t need many. Excess BCAA’s turn into liver fat and impair insulin signaling, driving metabolic syndrome and the leptin disconnect. You get BCAA’s from corn-fed beef, chicken, and fish.

7. Too much alcohol
A little alcohol is good (like one glass of red wine for women, two for men), but a lot is not. Alcohol’s effect on metabolic syndrome is dose-dependent. Excess alcohol is turned into liver fat, driving high blood triglycerides (which cause heart disease), insulin resistance, and the leptin disconnect which foments increased food consumption. While clearly a concern in adults, it is unlikely that alcohol contributes to metabolic syndrome in children.

8. Too much sugar
This is the Big Kahuna in our dietary debacle. The most commonly used sweetener in processed food around the world is sucrose (table sugar), which contains 50% fructose (very sweet) and 50% glucose (not-so-sweet). However, in North America and many other countries, non-diet soft drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which contains up to 55% fructose. Why? Sugar hides the negative aspects of bad food. Immature tomatoes in the sauce? Add sugar. Chinese chicken salad too sour? Add sugar. Chocolate too bitter? Add sugar. Of the 600,000 food items in the American grocery store, 80% are spiked with added sugar. Two recent studies show that sugar causes type 2 diabetes unrelated to its calories. A European study showed each soda per day increased risk for diabetes by 29% exclusive of calories or obesity. Our group showed that global sugar availability predicted the prevalence of diabetes during the decade 2000-2010, independent of of total calories, calories from other foodstuffs, aging, obesity, physical activity, or income. Every excess 150 calories per day increased diabetes prevalence by 0.1%, but if those 150 calories happened to be a can of soda, diabetes prevalence increased 11-fold, by 1.1%.

So is it quantity or quality? Actually, the quality determines the quantity. Because processed food causes insulin resistance, which makes you fat and sick and makes you eat more. Food should confer wellness, not illness. As long as processed food is the Industrial Global Diet, everyone is at risk.

There’s only one way to fix all eight problems at once — real food. Jamie knows it. I know it. And now you know it.

About the author: Robert H. Lustig, M.D., M.S.L. is Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. He is the author of “Fat Chance: the bitter truth about sugar”, “Sugar Has 56 Names: a shoppers guide”, and the just released “The Fat Chance Cookbook”. Watch Robert’s recent TED talk here.

FAT CHANCE: THE HIDDEN TRUTH ABOUT SUGAR, OBESITY AND DISEASE by Dr Robert Lustig is out now, published by 4th Estate, price £8.99


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