Playing Metabolic Defense

Your energy management system can get impaired by what you eat. What’s the solution?

by Bob Graves, Executive Editor

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a great deal of current media coverage about obesity and how a new class of drugs offers great promise to help people lose weight.

Our co-founder recently provided advice as to how to critically assess whether or not these drugs will likely meet expectations.

I thought I’d take up this subject from a different angle, namely how a body controls its fat level and how you can use that knowledge to improve your health –and manage your weight if that’s a goal. 

Medicine views a number of conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer, as chronic diseases. Those are recognized as the leading causes of death in the U.S. Relatively recently, the AMA added obesity to the list. Not often mentioned is that all four of these conditions share five common risk factors, that is to say symptoms which indicate you are at higher risk for having the condition. The term used to describe this set of symptoms is metabolic syndrome. And every symptom of metabolic syndrome is related to some impairment of your body’s energy management system.

A main role of metabolism is ensuring there is energy available as needed for all activities under all types of circumstances: heavy exertion, fasting, sleeping, reading a book, and so on. For most of us, at least early in our lives, our metabolism is self-regulating. Without conscious control on our part, it balances energy intake and expenditure and maintains a relatively stable amount of fat on the body. This stable weight is evidence of our energy system operating properly.  

One proposed explanation for this balance is the “set-point theory”—the body adds or reduces stored fat based on where the level is “set.” A home thermostat serves as a simple analogy, where room temperature is maintained based on a set point.

With this in mind, let’s get back to obesity. The National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization have both adopted high BMI as the criterion for defining obesity. While this may serve doctors and insurance companies to determine who qualifies for treatments (surgery or drugs), it doesn’t throw light on why a person gets obese. A definition has been proposed which provides better insight into the connection between obesity and metabolism: obesity is the dysregulation of fat storage. That is, too much fat is stored beyond the metabolic needs of the body.

As we get older, it is all too common for the body’s “set point” to rise, resulting in more fat being stored. For some this doesn’t happen. For most of us, it does. For some, a simple change in diet is enough to restore the set point. For others, the change required is more demanding and often associated with explanations like “I guess I just have a slow metabolism.”

Is this variation in our ability to maintain a stable set-point linked to our genetics? A simple answer is “yes, of course,” but genetics certainly doesn’t provide an explanation for the rapid rise in obesity which has occurred since the 1970s in the US. Fifty years simply isn’t sufficient time for our genes to have changed that much.

A better explanation is found in the massive increase in ultra-processed, packaged foods we eat. The result has been a parallel rise in metabolic-related chronic diseases.

Research is showing that the ultra-processed food can disrupt the regulatory system and cause people to overeat. For most Americans these foods now compose 60 – 70% of their diet.

This implies that your energy management system can get impaired by what you eat. To use a rather inexact but nicely descriptive term, it can get gunked up. The correct target then becomes “ungunking” the system and restoring its normal operation.

Back to the new class of obesity medications and a question. Do these drugs, originally researched in relation to treatment of diabetes, restore the normal operation of your energy management system? At this point research shows that people who had quit taking the drugs were likely to regain most of the weight they lost.

This presents them with the prospect of taking the drug for the rest of their lives. Or, they return to the condition they were in before they took the drug: an impaired energy management system which isn’t capable of adjusting energy intake to energy expenditure, with the result of increased stored fat.

What’s the solution? First, to recognize that many widely available and convenient foods are actually a form of attack on your body’s energy management system. Then, to play good defense, and take control of your food intake. In our existing food supply environment that’s admittedly a tough job.

At eSavvyHealth we believe that the best strategy for strengthening your defenses is getting a good understanding of how your body manages energy. We work diligently to provide well-validated information to help you achieve your health-related goals. We don’t offer quick fix special foods or supplements; we offer information in a highly understandable form to help you restore your body’s metabolism to its best possible condition. We hope you’ll explore our website to see how what we offer can be of assistance.

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