Your weight – it’s more important than you think

This column is written by Stig Bengmark – Professor Emeritus, scientist, lecturer and writer. Read more of Stig Bengmark’s columns here.

Obesity was a sign of prosperity

I don’t enjoy talking about this, and it’s not encouraging for people to hear about, this knowledge about excess weight and obesity. What has happened and is happening is honestly a very sad episode and what’s worse is, according to all forecasts, things are going to get even worse as the rest of the world adapts to our western lifestyle – a lot of stress, little exercise and abysmal eating habits. But don’t shoot the messenger – I’m just telling you how things are.

People have been overweight for thousands of years – there were obese people in biblical times. It was the availability of fire, the possibility of cooking and grilling food and, above all, the advent of agriculture and thereby methods of mass-producing food, that created the possibility of overfeeding the body. For a long time, it was a privilege for the rich to eat so much they became fat – obesity was actually a status symbol at the time. Nowadays, it’s the scourge of low-income earners and the low-educated – Swedish studies show that these groups suffer from about 60% more obesity and disease than the rest of the population. It’s especially tragic that their children are affected to the same extent, something that often leaves its mark throughout their lives. To a certain extent, it’s decided early on in life – during the time when the immune system is developed and fine-tuned – whether we’ll end up suffering from chronic diseases when we get old. As an adult, you have aresponsibility to decide how things will be for your child later in life.

Our early ancestors were never overweight – it’s not down to genes

Our early ancestors – from the palaeolithic era – were most likely never overweight, and neither are those people today that choose to live a palaeolithic lifestyle. It’s believed that our ancestors ran about 15 km every day in order to find food, and that they ate a diet that in the modern parlance has come to be known as 80/10/10 – 80% greens, raw and high in fibre (nowadays from green salads, kale, broccoli , spinach, parsley, herbs and the like), 10% fat (nowadays from avocados, coconut, chocolate and the like) and 10% protein (nowadays from peas, beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, almonds and the like). Those who live Palaeolithic lifestyles today, for example, indigenous peoples such as Abkhazians (a prehistoric group in Georgia by the Black Sea), Hunzas (a remnant of an ethnic group in northern Pakistan) and Vilcabamba (a remnant of the former Inca people living in the mountains of Ecuador), are never obese, rarely get sick and often live to be 100 years or older. Despite working hard in the fields, they manage on 1700-1800 calories a day – i.e. far below what the authorities recommend.


It’s the consumption of high-calorie refined foods that is making us fat and sick

It has to be stated clearly – it’s food that comes from agriculture and has been refined and calorie-condensed through various industrial processes that is creating the problems. It’s mainly sugar and sugar-like foods such as bread (even brown bread), pizza, boiled root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips), pasta and boiled, refined white rice, that are causing it. Among the worst culprits, we find many of the gluten-free store-bought breads that are baked with cheap potato and corn flour and that hardly contain any nutrients but lots of high-calorie starch and sugar. And most of what we eat, especially corn, is bred to provide better yields (more calories), and some are now also often GMO’s (made purely to increase profits), which contribute massively towards making us obese as well as sick.

It doesn’t change anything if you’re vegetarian or vegan in this instance – the food I mention above has its origins in plants, but is nevertheless very unhealthy due to how it’s been processed. Sugar is produced by, among other things, cooking sugar beets, sugar cane, or corn and it’s exactly the same thing you and I do when we cook potatoes and other root vegetables in our own kitchens. This actually adds almost as much sugar and sometimes much more than what the stores add. It’s a comfort to know that cooked root vegetables such as potatoes boiled gently until crunchy (slightly undercooked) will return to fibre when allowed to cool. This process is known as regrading/recrystallisation.

Sweden is at the top globally for consumption of sugar and fats – the WHO has warned Sweden

In recent years, consumption of refined sugar has remained steady, between 34 and 35 kg per year in Sweden, which is 87 grams per person per day (about 30 level teaspoons or 450 calories). This puts Sweden in ninth place in the global ‘sugar league’. The WHO, which allows a generous 25 g per person per day (6 level teaspoons, about 57 calories) warned Sweden in particular last year that the sugar intake is too high in this country. For my part, I’m pretty much at zero tolerance – our ancestors didn’t eat refined sugar and neither should we.

But we also eat far too much fat

Humans also eat far too many long-chain fatty acids (at least 80% comes from cows and pigs as meat or dairy products). It’s important to know that these fats cannot be absorbed directly via the portal vein like other nutrients and quickly converted into energy by the liver – the molecules are far too large for that. Instead, they’re absorbed via the lymph system and the large lymph duct to enter the general blood circulation where they often stop for a few hours before they finally, as if by chance, reach the liver and are converted into energy. This creates a great strain on the body and has been named postprandial inflammation.

Only animals in captivity become overweight and ill – when they’re given western animal feed

In nature, animals without access to western animal feed rarely become overweight or ill. Only once they are held in captivity and fed western food do they become unwell. This is what happened to the gorillas in Cleveland Zoo, who developed serious cardiac problems but became healthy once again when they were given the food they are designed to eat.

The ‘deadly quartet’ of symptoms pose a much greater risk of ill health and death than tobacco and alcohol combined

Researchers in the United States, Canada and Germany recently studied the risk of death in various manifestations of disease. Instead of looking at the mortality rate for the different diseases, their starting point was the mortality rate from different symptoms. I invite you to carefully study the picture below. As expected, smoking is the leading cause of death, if only by a small margin. High blood pressure was literally shown to be almost as dangerous, followed by obesity. Alcohol abuse came in tenth place, and the total risk of death from the symptoms between 2nd and 9th – all the results of overconsumption of western food – was in fact many times greater than the total risk from smoking and alcohol combined. Researchers nowadays talk about the deadly quartet – the four symptoms, which together carry by far the greatest risk of ‘premature’ death: significant obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high levels of fats in the blood.

The Swede, Eskil Kylin, was the first person (1920) to draw attention to the danger from the combination of these ‘distortions’ of the body’s metabolism – a combination that was later named metabolic syndrome. Today, metabolic syndrome is perceived as the mother of disease – i.e. abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, too much fat in the blood, too much sugar in the blood, low level useful cholesterol and high content of uric acid in the blood.

It sounds strange, but it’s the meal itself that creates increased inflammation in the body

Western food is mostly absorbed early on in the small intestine which creates a huge burden on our internal organs, especially the liver and pancreas, but also the kidneys. This triggers a process called postprandial inflammation, which is caused by far too much fat and sugar in the blood as well as a sharp increase in inflammatory substances in the body, mainly from the intestine, such as the bacterial toxin, endotoxin. A significant increase of inflammatory neurotransmitters can also be detected in the blood as well as from the amount of white blood cells – the more sugar, the stronger the reaction will be. The effect has been estimated to cause as much inflammation as smoking three cigarettes quickly. (Erridge C et al Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86:1286-1292. Ceriello A Diabetes 2004; 53: 701–710). Fewer and smaller meals have many advantages – palaeolithic people ate/eat only twice a day – usually in the middle of the day and early evening.

Overweight people are missing important gut bacteria

It needs to be pointed out forcefully that it’s not just too little exercise and too much food that makes you fat. Far from it! Obesity is caused by inflammation and everything that causes inflammation contributes to obesity. One especially big problem is that overweight people generally have completely different gut bacteria – less of the good ones and much more of the disease-causing ones. These deliver more of the inflammatory toxins such as the bacterial toxin, endotoxin, into the body, but many of these people are almost completely missing a lot of the useful bacteria, e.g. the ones I’m researching – Lb Plantarum and Lb Paracasei – bacteria that have been proven to keep antibiotic-resistant strains away, among other things.

It also needs to be pointed out that if you ‘extinguish’ the inflammation more or less completely, it still causes obesity – something you often see in individuals who take strong anti-inflammatory drugs such as cortisone, prednisolone, NSAID tablets and certain chemotherapy drugs.

Even vitamin D deficiency contributes to inflammation and obesity, as does your mother’s lifestyle – an obese or an anorexic mother both contribute negatively. Overfeeding as well as starvation of the foetus, and a metabolism and immune function that are programmed to be either miserly or overly generous are all negative. Excessive intake of pro-inflammatory proteins both as a supplement and/or as part of the diet (e.g. gluten and casein), as well as the intake of medicines contribute to increased inflammation. Poor sleep, poor circadian rhythm (late nights, shift work), when you have stopped smoking or give too little time to resting your organs/detoxing also contribute to obesity.

The adipose tissue – the body’s litter bin

When the burden of chemicals, medicines, hormones, bacteria, bacterial toxins such as endotoxin, uremic toxins and plastic toxins of various kinds becomes too great and the body has no other option to get rid of these toxins, it chooses to lock them in the body’s fat stores. A recent study shows that obese people, when compared to thin people, have 2-3 times more chemical products stored in their adipose tissue (Kim MJ et al Environ Health Perspect 2011; 119: 377-383).

External toxins come from food stored in plastic packaging, for example – even food that appears to have been stored in paper has in fact been stored in plastic as this type of packaging always has a plastic film on the inside. We’ve known for a long time that the plastic transfers onto the contents, for example, it was observed as far back as 40 years ago that plastic was transferred to blood cells intended for blood transfusions when they were stored in plastic bags (Jaeger RJ, Rubin RJ. N Engl J Med. 1972;287:1114-1118), and this is probably still the case today. One unfortunate consequence of a lot of ‘junk’ in the fat stores is that the body reduces the circulation of fat – the burning of fat gets slower and more inefficient when it’s busy protecting other organs from toxins – and as a consequence it becomes more difficult to diet/lose weight.

Is daily fasting the answer?

It’s quite clear that the methods that have proven most successful on animals – calorie restriction (CR) and timer-restricted eating (TR) – are now practiced by many more people than we assume. Adolescents who sleep well into the morning often have a period without food supplied for 15 hours or more. Others, like myself, practice the Palaeolithic variation – no food after 6 PM and nothing before 12 the next day – a variation named 18/6. It’s not the case that our tissues lack a supply of energy during the fasting period, on the contrary, there’s plenty, but it comes from another source – the fat layers. The switch switches from ‘sugar mode’ (energy) to ‘fat mode’.

Mark Mattson, one of the world’s foremost leading researchers in his field, said in an interview with the Swedish journalist, Henrik Ennart, that he ‘gets very tired and sluggish from eating breakfast and lunch – instead I exercise’. When asked if children should also skip breakfast, he answered: ‘We’ve looked at that research (the claim that breakfast is good for children) and it’s based on very weak data’. You should read his book ‘The mystery of ageing – The science that prolongs your life’. A very interesting book that fills me with wonder.

If you choose to eat breakfast – eat mostly fresh vegetables

If you still want to eat breakfast, then eat something raw and plant-based, for example a green smoothie. The contents are not actually broken down for the next 2-3 hours, so the organs can rest, the detox continues, and the fast is extended in that case by 2-3 hours – this is how long it takes to transport the vegetables down to the intestinal bacteria, which are the only ones in the body that can break down this type of food.

Okay, one last warning: watch out for corn!

Corn is one of the world’s most doctored and GM-affected foods. Corn is full of calories and unhealthy fructose, which is now extracted and used in a lot of industrially processed foods, most of all in fizzy drinks. A study carried out in London cinemas showed that the corn that children and teenagers eat from cones contains upwards of 1000 calories. In addition, corn contains a gluten-like protein, zein, which blocks the storage of the essential amino acid tryptophan (Choi S et al Physiol Needs 2009; 98: 156-162), which is necessary for the formation of neurotransmitters such as serotonin (important for well-being, alertness and control of anxiety and worry, satiety and pain) and melatonin (involved in circadian rhythm, wakefulness and sleep).

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