Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Body Fat Setpoint

One pound of human fat contains about 3,500 calories. That represents roughly 40 slices of toast. So if you were to eat one extra slice of toast every day, you would gain just under a pound of fat per month. Conversely, if you were to eat one fewer slice per day, you'd lose a pound a month. Right? Not quite.

How is it that most peoples' body fat mass stays relatively stable over long periods of time, when an imbalance of as little as 5% of calories should lead to rapid changes in weight? Is it because we do complicated calculations in our heads every day, factoring in basal metabolic rate and exercise, to make sure our energy intake precisely matches expenditure? Of course not. We're gifted with a sophisticated system of hormones and brain regions that do the calculations for us unconsciously*.

When it's working properly, this system precisely matches energy intake to expenditure, ensuring a stable and healthy fat mass. It does this by controlling food seeking behaviors, feelings of fullness and even energy expenditure by heat production and physical movements. If you eat a little bit more than usual at a meal, a properly functioning system will say "let's eat a little bit less next time, and also burn some of it off." This is why animals in their natural habitat are nearly always at an appropriate weight, barring starvation. The only time wild animals are overweight enough to compromise maximum physical performance is when it serves an important purpose, such as preparing for hibernation.

I recently came across a classic study that illustrates these principles nicely in humans, titled "Metabolic Response to Experimental Overfeeding in Lean and Overweight Healthy Volunteers", by Dr. Erik O. Diaz and colleagues (1). They overfed lean and modestly overweight volunteers 50% more calories than they naturally consume, under controlled conditions where the investigators could be confident of food intake. Macronutrient composition was 12-42-46 % protein-fat-carbohydrate.

After 6 weeks of massive overfeeding, both lean and overweight subjects gained an average of 10 lb (4.6 kg) of fat mass and 6.6 lb (3 kg) of lean mass. Consistent with what one would expect if the body were trying to burn off excess calories and return to baseline fat mass, the metabolic rate and body heat production of the subjects increased.

Following overfeeding, subjects were allowed to eat however much they wanted for 6 weeks. Both lean and overweight volunteers promptly lost 6.2 of the 10 lb they had gained in fat mass (61% of fat gained), and 1.5 of the 6.6 lb they had gained in lean mass (23%). Here is a graph showing changes in fat mass for each individual that completed the study:

We don't know if they would have lost the remaining fat mass in the following weeks because they were only followed for 6 weeks after overfeeding, although it did appear that they were reaching a plateau slightly above their original body weight. Thus, nearly all subjects "defended" their original body fat mass irrespective of their starting point. Underfeeding studies have shown the same phenomenon: whether lean or overweight, people tend to return to their original fat mass after underfeeding is over. Again, this supports the idea that the body has a body fat mass "set point" that it attempts to defend against changes in either direction. It's one of many systems in the body that attempt to maintain homeostasis.

OK, so why do we care?

We care because this has some very important implications for human obesity. With such a powerful system in place to keep body fat mass in a narrow range, a major departure from that range implies that the system isn't functioning correctly. In other words, obesity has to result from a defect in the system that regulates body fat, because a properly functioning system would not have allowed that degree of fat gain in the first place.

So yes, we are gaining weight because we eat too many calories relative to energy expended. But why are we eating too many calories? Because the system that should be defending a low fat mass is now defending a high fat mass. Therefore, the solution is not simply to restrict calories, or burn more calories through exercise, but to try to "reset" the system that decides what fat mass to defend. Restricting calories isn't necessarily a good solution because the body will attempt to defend its setpoint, whether high or low, by increasing hunger and decreasing its metabolic rate. That's why low-calorie diets, and most diets in general, typically fail in the long term. It's miserable to fight hunger every day.

This raises two questions:
  1. What caused the system to defend a high fat mass?
  2. Is it possible to reset the fat mass setpoint, and how would one go about it?
Given the fact that body fat mass is much higher in many affluent nations than it has ever been in human history, the increase must be due to factors that have changed in modern times. I can only speculate what these factors may be, because research has not identified them to my knowledge, at least not in humans. But I have my guesses. I'll expand on this in the next post.

* The hormone leptin and the hypothalamus are the ringleaders, although there are many other elements involved, such as numerous gut-derived peptides, insulin, and a number of other brain regions.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Body Fat Setpoint, Part III: Dietary Causes of Obesity

What Caused the Setpoint to Change?

We have two criteria to narrow our search for the cause of modern fat gain:
  1. It has to be new to the human environment
  2. It has to cause leptin resistance or otherwise disturb the setpoint
Although I believe that exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle, it probably can't explain the increase in fat mass in modern nations. I've written about that here and here. There are various other possible explanations, such as industrial pollutants, a lack of sleep and psychological stress, which may play a role. But I feel that diet is likely to be the primary cause. When you're drinking 20 oz Cokes, bisphenol-A contamination is the least of your worries.

In the last post, I described two mechanisms that may contribute to elevating the body fat set point by causing leptin resistance: inflammation in the hypothalamus, and impaired leptin transport into the brain due to elevated triglycerides. After more reading and discussing it with my mentor, I've decided that the triglyceride hypothesis is on shaky ground*. Nevertheless, it is consistent with certain observations:
  • Fibrate drugs that lower triglycerides can lower fat mass in rodents and humans
  • Low-carbohydrate diets are effective for fat loss and lower triglycerides
  • Fructose can cause leptin resistance in rodents and it elevates triglycerides (1)
  • Fish oil reduces triglycerides. Some but not all studies have shown that fish oil aids fat loss (2)
Inflammation in the hypothalamus, with accompanying resistance to leptin signaling, has been reported in a number of animal studies of diet-induced obesity. I feel it's likely to occur in humans as well, although the dietary causes are probably different for humans. The hypothalamus is the primary site where leptin acts to regulate fat mass (3). Importantly, preventing inflammation in the brain prevents leptin resistance and obesity in diet-induced obese mice (3.1). The hypothalamus is likely to be the most important site of action. Research is underway on this.

The Role of Digestive Health

What causes inflammation in the hypothalamus? One of the most interesting hypotheses is that increased intestinal permeability allows inflammatory substances to cross into the circulation from the gut, irritating a number of tissues including the hypothalamus.

Dr. Remy Burcelin and his group have spearheaded this research. They've shown that high-fat diets cause obesity in mice, and that they also increase the level of an inflammatory substance called lipopolysaccharide (LPS) in the blood. LPS is produced by gram-negative bacteria in the gut and is one of the main factors that activates the immune system during an infection. Antibiotics that kill gram-negative bacteria in the gut prevent the negative consequences of high-fat feeding in mice.

Burcelin's group showed that infusing LPS into mice on a low-fat chow diet causes them to become obese and insulin resistant just like high-fat fed mice (4). Furthermore, adding 10% of the soluble fiber oligofructose to the high-fat diet prevented the increase in intestinal permeability and also largely prevented the body fat gain and insulin resistance from high-fat feeding (5). Oligofructose is food for friendly gut bacteria and ends up being converted to butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids in the colon. This results in lower intestinal permeability to toxins such as LPS. This is particularly interesting because oligofructose supplements cause fat loss in humans (6).

A recent study showed that blood LPS levels are correlated with body fat, elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, and insulin resistance in humans (7). However, a separate study didn't come to the same conclusion (8). The discrepancy may be due to the fact that LPS isn't the only inflammatory substance to cross the gut lining-- other substances may also be involved. Anything in the blood that shouldn't be there is potentially inflammatory.

Overall, I think gut dysfunction probably plays a major role in obesity and other modern metabolic problems. Insufficient dietary fiber, micronutrient deficiencies, excessive gut irritating substances such as gluten, abnormal bacterial growth due to refined carbohydrates (particularly sugar), and omega-6:3 imbalance may all contribute to abnormal gut bacteria and increased gut permeability.

The Role of Fatty Acids and Micronutrients

Any time a disease involves inflammation, the first thing that comes to my mind is the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fats. The modern Western diet is heavily weighted toward omega-6, which are the precursors to some very inflammatory substances (as well as a few that are anti-inflammatory). These substances are essential for health in the correct amounts, but they need to be balanced with omega-3 to prevent excessive and uncontrolled inflammatory responses. Animal models have repeatedly shown that omega-3 deficiency contributes to the fat gain and insulin resistance they develop when fed high-fat diets (9, 10, 11).

As a matter of fact, most of the papers claiming "saturated fat causes this or that in rodents" are actually studying omega-3 deficiency. The "saturated fats" that are typically used in high-fat rodent diets are refined fats from conventionally raised animals, which are very low in omega-3. If you add a bit of omega-3 to these diets, suddenly they don't cause the same metabolic problems, and are generally superior to refined seed oils, even in rodents (12, 13).
I believe that micronutrient deficiency also plays a role. Inadequate vitamin and mineral status can contribute to inflammation and weight gain. Obese people typically show deficiencies in several vitamins and minerals. The problem is that we don't know whether the deficiencies caused the obesity or vice versa. Refined carbohydrates and refined oils are the worst offenders because they're almost completely devoid of micronutrients.

Vitamin D in particular plays an important role in immune responses (including inflammation), and also appears to influence body fat mass. Vitamin D status is associated with body fat and insulin sensitivity in humans (14, 15, 16). More convincingly, genetic differences in the vitamin D receptor gene are also associated with body fat mass (17, 18), and vitamin D intake predicts future fat gain (19).

Exiting the Niche

I believe that we have strayed too far from our species' ecological niche, and our health is suffering. One manifestation of that is body fat gain. Many factors probably contribute, but I believe that diet is the most important. A diet heavy in nutrient-poor refined carbohydrates and industrial omega-6 oils, high in gut irritating substances such as gluten and sugar, and a lack of direct sunlight, have caused us to lose the robust digestion and good micronutrient status that characterized our distant ancestors. I believe that one consequence has been the dysregulation of the system that maintains the fat mass "setpoint". This has resulted in an increase in body fat in 20th century affluent nations, and other cultures eating our industrial food products.

In the next post, I'll discuss my thoughts on how to reset the body fat setpoint.

The ratio of leptin in the serum to leptin in the brain is diminished in obesity, but given that serum leptin is very high in the obese, the absolute level of leptin in the brain is typically not lower than a lean person. Leptin is transported into the brain by a transport mechanism that saturates when serum leptin is not that much higher than the normal level for a lean person. Therefore, the fact that the ratio of serum to brain leptin is higher in the obese does not necessarily reflect a defect in transport, but rather the fact that the mechanism that transports leptin is already at full capacity.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Krauss's New Article on Saturated Fat Intervention Trials

Dr. Ronald Krauss's group just published another article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, this time on the intervention trials examining the effectiveness of reducing saturated fat and/or replacing it with other nutrients, particularly carbohydrate or polyunsaturated seed oils. I don't agree with everything in this article. For example, they cite the Finnish Mental Hospital trial. They openly acknowledge some contradictory data, although they left out the Sydney diet-heart study and the Rose et al. corn oil study, both of which showed greatly increased mortality from replacing animal fats with polyunsaturated seed oils. Nevertheless, they get it right in the end:
Particularly given the differential effects of dietary saturated fats and carbohydrates on concentrations of larger and smaller LDL particles, respectively, dietary efforts to improve the increasing burden of CVD risk associated with atherogenic dyslipidemia should primarily emphasize the limitation of refined carbohydrate intakes and a reduction in excess adiposity.
This is really cool. Krauss is channeling Weston Price. If this keeps up, I may have no reason to blog anymore!