Summary: The cause of poor weight management leading to obesity is excess calories. Excess body fat, adipose tissue, resulting from the consumption of excess calories, is the body’s organ causing the advancement of many metabolic diseases.
In offering a perspective dealing with health, disease, and processed foods, there must be compromises or “tradeoffs”. There is no perfect “tradeoff” for any individual to maintain their health.
The more we read about overweight and obesity, the more confused we become. The general public still associates weight gain with excess calories. New theories abound on other causes. I decided to ask a friend with an academic background in Nutrition to provide his perspective. Dennis Gordon and I served on an IFT committee together many years ago. He is as focused on obesity as I am on processed food—RLS.
Health is defined as the freedom from disease. A lofty statement, and for many people, a state not achieved in their later years. The life span of Americans is about 78 years. The average Health Adjusted Life Expediency (HALE) is approximately 5-years lower. This 5-year period is the time span a person has disabling illnesses. This time gap between an expected life span and living a healthy life can be more reflective of a 10-year span. This longer period of compromised health can be explained by the fact individuals are increasing becoming overweight and obese. There are two paramount reasons for individual’s declining health.
First it is the individual with good intent but negligent regarding their health. Health is a total individual responsibility. Barring genetic disease and disorders, a few common metabolic diseases can explain the deterioration of heath in the first 68 years of life, and the more devastating consequences in the last 10 years.
The second reason for declining and compromised health is the physical state of the individual. The individual lacks self-control to manage their weight causing them to become obese. It is reported by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that 74% of American are overweight and 43% are obese. Most alarming is the 19% level of obesity among children 2-19 years of age. This was unheard of 30-years ago. Obesity is a disease, but there is no drug for its management. The only therapy for weight management is individual motivation. Easily said, but hard to achieve. The key to help people manage their weight and realize the consequences of being overweight is education.
More informative than weight in assessing a healthy state, a useful health index is to know one’s Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is calculated with the formula, weight in pounds x 703 / height in inches x height in inches. An optimum BMI value is considered around 25. Perhaps only about 25% of the adult population is at this BMI level. In the BMI range of 25 and < 30, a person can be in an undiagnosed impaired health state. A BMI value above 30 is defined as being obese. BMI values are not just a number, it provides a valuable health index and warning. The value and meaning of the BMI above 25 helps indicate an indirect measurement of the amount of excess fat, adipose tissue, in the body.
The accumulation of body fat can be related to a ticking time bomb. But the ticking is continuous damage within the body before the explosion of diagnosed poor health through diseases. The amount of excess fat in the body can be directly related to the development of the three most common metabolic diseases. The constant insult to the body with excess weight, excess fat, can be traced to two adverse events. Excess body fat causes the adipose tissue to be in an advanced state of inflammation. This increasing state of inflammation is considered a significant contributing factor in the advancement of coronary heart disease (CHD) and other diseases. Secondly, excess body fat will decrease insulin sensitivity that can lead to Type II diabetes.
The 3-most common metabolic diseases leading to poor health are CHD, Type II Diabetes, and hypertension. All have direct connections with a person’s weight. Type II diabetes is a devastating disease but is also a causative factor for other maladies. These can include kidney failure, loss of eyesight and lower limb amputations. Type II diabetes is a behavioral disease caused by the overconsumption of “healthy and unhealthy”, “good and bad, “unprocessed and processed”, “snack or non-snack”, “empty-calorie or caloric”, foods. Sugar and fat as individual food components are often cited as the causes of poor weight management, obesity, and overall poor health. The real problem is the excess calories provided by the excess consumption of all food items. The body does not differentiate as to the source of excess calories in leading to impaired health.
It is estimated that 75% of all foods consumed are processed to some degree. The level or diversity of food processing is highly variable. Two divisions of foods are cited. These are processed foods with or without any type of food additive. Except for fresh meats and seafoods, fruits, vegetables, and a few grains-cereals, it is difficult to cite a food without some additive before being consumed.
There are major categories of food additives. They include acidulants, acidity regulators, anticaking agents, antifoaming and foaming agents, antioxidants, bulking agents, food colors, fortifying agents, color retention agents, emulsifiers, flavors, flavor enhancers, flour treatment agents, glazing agents, humectants, tracer gas, preservatives, stabilizers, sweetener, thickeners and packaging aids. The number of chemicals added to foods can be a daunting challenge for any individual to understand and accept or reject in their foods. But the fact remains, all these additives are providing for the consumer’s overwhelming acceptance of the processed foods they buy and consume. The “tradeoff’ is for the consumer to decide what “processed foods” they want to eat. The second and perhaps more important “tradeoff” is to decide how much of any “processed or unprocessed” to eat.
The FDA requires all ingredients added to foods pass Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) protocols-standards. Every ingredient has a set level of use. Levels are extremely low, with a high probability of no adverse health effects. It is recognized some may disagree on these safety standards. It is their “tradeoff”. The consumer must appreciate that all food ingredients added to foods are safe. But there is no information in these safety studies that food additives add or distract from health. More plausible explanations for additives contribution to an individual’s daily health can be made. Many additives prevent the growth of undesirable bacteria and molds. A food product’s quality and safety are preserved through additives and processing.
As often cited, sugar and fat are considered health negative factors, additives. They can be considered culprits in providing excess calories, but only when overconsumed. Regarding the use of the many other food additives and their consumption, they cannot contribute to a person’s weight gain. Weight gain can only be caused with the consumption of excess calories. Food additives do not provide calories or make calories in the body. The source of extra calories will always be their over consumption by the individual.
Is it more informative and helpful to the consumer to know the amount of sugar and fat or calories on the Food Label? All three are listed on the label, but it is the calories provided by sugar and fat that are the cause of poor weight management and obesity. A recommendation has been made to the FDA that a more visible calorie declaration should be on all food packages. The bold calorie number should be at least one inch in size, possibly larger, thus of pronounced visibility.
Soft beverages are iconic in the world and enjoyed. With added sugar, they contain calories, approximately 140 calories per 12 ounces. The alternative is generally zero calorie beverages with sugar substitutes. These can include, but are not limited to Aspartame, Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame K or ace K) Monk fruit sweetener, Neotame, or Saccharin. The weight-conscious individual must decide. What is more harmful to their health? The 140 empty calorie beverage or the sugar substitute, food additive, believed harmful to their health but unsubstantiated. A “tradeoff”. The sugar substitutes have all been evaluated in more demanding safety protocols possibly lasting many years.
To summarize, the problem of poor weight management and obesity cannot be resolved in a 1,500-word perspective. Weight management is an individual’s sole responsibility. The same can be said about a person’s health. The weight of Americans is steadily increasing and is a burden to individuals and society. Data suggests 75% of American live in a developing disease state by being overweight. There is no drug to control one’s weight. The cause of the problem is not processed foods with additives, but the steady over consumption of “healthy and unhealthy”, “good and bad, “unprocessed and processed”, “snack or non-snack”, “empty calorie”, foods.
Sugar and fat are not the culprits, they are just components of a diet. A total diet that must consist of excess calories. The excess body fat that accumulates in the body is the individual’s body’s engine driving the acceleration and maintenance of metabolic diseases. The answer to the weight problem and obesity pandemic will only come through the individual’s own efforts and continuous public education. Suggestions as to public education efforts can be offered.
Next week: How wealth and poverty affect the healthiness of the American diet
Dennis T. Gordon is Professor Emeritus and former Chairman of the Department of Cereal Science at North Dakota State University. Professional experiences include Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Missouri and Oregon State University. He served as an IFT Scientific Lecturer for 10 years and taught IFT short courses on Functional Foods over an 8-year period. He is a current member of ASN and a former member of AACCI. Dennis chaired a committee to define dietary fiber.