Ah, the eternal quest for weight loss. We are told that successful weight loss is achieved simply by taking in fewer calories than we expend…calories in has to be less than calories out, putting us in a caloric deficit, with a deficit of 3500 calories resulting in a pound of weight loss. Easy peasy lemon squeezey. Why then is it so damn hard? Why are we facing a real epidemic of overweight and obesity? Obviously there are a host of factors that complicate this seemingly easy mathematical solution to weight loss, but with greater frequency scientists are beginning to question whether the basic premise of calories in vs calories out really holds water. While there are certainly emotional and psychological factors that play a big part in achieving success in the weight loss game, is the physical piece of it as simple as taking in fewer calories than you expend?
A recent piece in “The Atlantic” titled “What’s Really Making Us Fat?” by Kristin Wartman presents ideas from some scientists who believe that other elements have an impact on weight loss, apart from the simple a-b=c. While still controversial, some scientists are beginning to look at other substances in our food supply that may be impacting the way our bodies store fat, thus disrupting the standard belief that losing weight is a case of simple math. Bruce Blumberg, a professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California at Irvine, has studied the effect of pollutants such as PVC plastics, pesticides sprayed on crops & chemicals in our water systems that ultimately enter our food system. His studies have led him to implicate these “obsogens” in changing how our bodies respond to calories…in essence storing more of them as fat.
Doctors and scientists point to studies that support the standard calories in vs calories out theory; many of them argue that it doesn’t matter what type of food you eat, it doesn’t matter how the food was processed, and it doesn’t matter what types of chemicals or other environmental pollutants are present. To them the energy balance equation of calories in vs calories out is indisputable, hard science. And yet researchers at Princeton conducted a study on rats where some drank high fructose corn syrup while others drank sugar-water. Calories were the same and yet the rats feeding on HFCS gained significantly more weight. Blumberg considers fructose an obsogen.
“Crystalline fructose doesn’t exist in nature, we’re making that,” he says. “Fructose is not a food. People think fructose comes from fruit but it doesn’t. The fructose that we eat is synthesized. Yes, it’s derived from food. But cyanide is derived from food, too. Would you call it a food?”
Another “obsogen” receiving attention of late is BPA, which is used to make plastics and has been found to exert hormone-like properties. Many foods are subjected to BPA plastics. According to Frederick vom Saal, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia:
“We do animal experiments with chemicals like BPA, and we dramatically alter the way fat is regulated in those animals.” And they’re not changing their food intake.”
Others who argue that there is more to weight loss than just consuming fewer calories point to the disparities amongst people of differing race and economic levels:
Julie Guthman, a professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, points out in her new book, Weighing In, that the amount of calories consumed across racial lines and income levels varies little, according to a study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is despite the fact that obesity and overweight do vary across racial lines and income levels: Poorer people tend to be more obese, and African-Americans and Latinos have higher rates of obesity than do whites. This means there must be some other mechanism, Guthman says, besides excess calories, in the varying levels of obesity. In her book, she refers to the possible role of environmental factors like exposure to obesogens and other toxins, stress, and non-nutritional aspects of food.
I’m no scientist and I certainly am not qualified to examine and critique the various studies used to support each sides’ position. However, as Frederick vom Saal says:
“If people really want to solve the obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease epidemics,” he says, “it isn’t a wise thing to be ignoring any contributor to this. And we’re not obese just because of HFCS, or because of BPA. I also know that nicotine and PCBs and other chemicals are implicated in diabetes and metabolic disease as well.”
Certainly I believe calories in vs calories out is important, but I also believe there is more going on here than something so simplistic. Is is really so hard to believe that all these chemicals and pollutants couldn’t be wreaking metabolic havoc within our bodies? Certainly something is going on, and I think in an effort to attempt to understand what it is, all potential contributors should be considered. I would love to hear your thoughts.