Obesity has gone prime time. We Find evidence of its presence where ever we look: in every neighborhood, every mall, every school and every workplace. Hardly a day goes by without the news reporting on some aspect of the looming obesity crisis. However, the epidemic is not confined to just the wealthy developed world. Even desperately poor countries such as Nigeria and Uganda are wrestling with the dilemma of obesity. China, which was once one of the world’s leanest countries, is not immune. In fact, it has one of the fastest-growing obesity rates in the world and one quarter of its urban youth is presently overweight. It is projected that by 2015, 200 million Chinese will be not just obese, but morbidly obese. The looming obesity epidemic is sending chills through the global community. Worldwide, more than 1.3 billion people are overweight, whereas only 800 million are underweight—and these statistics are diverging rapidly.
The problem of expanding waistlines is more than merely a vanity concern. There are serious health consequences from sporting that beer belly. Being overweight can radically change the course of a person’s life. Fat is toxic and potentially lethal. Just carrying as few as an extra 4.5 kilos (10 pounds), over your ideal weight is considered a serious risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, hormonal imbalances depression and cancer. In fact, at least 30 different diseases are related to being overweight. So, what’s going on here? If people were to follow the advice offered by medical professional, public health officials and the experts from the weight loss industry, the problem should be easily solved. Their call to action basically involves turning your back on all those sugary, high carbohydrate, processed, junk foods and switch to a low calorie diet fortified by plenty of exercise. They say it all boils down to a very simple equation: take in fewer calories and burn more.
Sounds logical. The only problem is that this decades old approach is a dismal failure. For the vast majority of people, it doesn’t work. In fact, long-term success for attaining permanent weight loss is only achieved by a mere 2–5 percent of those very determined and lucky dieters.
A definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. It certainly appears that the traditional approach to winning the battle of the bulge does indeed, seem insane.
If there are answers and successful strategies to stem the tide of this serious health epidemic, they will need to be sought elsewhere.
It’s time to discover some of the missing pieces of the weight loss puzzle.
Secrets of the Brain-Belly Connection
Do you value your brainpower? Certainly the one faculty that everyone wants to hold onto throughout a life’s lifetime is a fully functioning, intact brain. Unfortunately belly fat can deliver a serious blow to your aspirations.
Overwhelming evidence now reveals that your expanding waistline will put a serious crimp on your brain size as well as brainpower.
Researchers set out to discover if being overweight posed a danger to the brain. They scanned the brains of 94 people over the age of 70. They were looking to see the differences in the brains of people who were of normal weight (BMI under 25), overweight (BMI 25–30), and obese (BMI over 30). (BMI stands for body mass index, an approximation of body fat based on height and weight.)
Their results were quit shocking. Overweight people have 4 percent less brain tissue than people of normal weight. And, for obese people, the findings were even worse. They had 8 percent less brain tissue than people of normal weight.
The study not only showed that carrying extra weight degenerated the brain but it also accelerated its aging. Researcher Paul Thompson shared his observation, “The brains of overweight people looked eight years older than the brains of those who were lean, and 16 years older in obese people. Type 2 diabetes, which is common in the overweight, is known to accelerate the aging of the brain and the onset of dementia. But the relationship between brain size and weight still stood when the researchers accounted for this, suggesting it is the fat itself that is causing the problem. It is thought that high levels of fat raise the odds of the arteries clogging up, cutting the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. This could cause brain cells to die and the organ to shrink.” The high demands put on these brain areas may make them more sensitive to changes in oxygen levels.
Another study used magnetic resonance imaging to compare the brains of 44 obese individuals with those of 19 lean people of similar age and background. The obese individuals had more water in the amygdale—a part of the brain involved in eating behavior. It also showed smaller orbitofrontal cortices in obese individuals, important for impulse control and also involved in eating behavior. These findings strengthen the “slippery slope” theory of obesity. The neural changes that occur when you are overweight, affects the parts of your brain that influence and control so many behaviors necessary to make healthy choices.
Further studies indicate that those with the most belly fat (visceral fat mass) suffer the greatest mental declines over time—and that central or abdominal obesity, in particular, accounts for more than a three-fold increase in dementia risk.
What’s even more worrying is that increased belly fat is linked to decreases in total brain volume, independent of BMI. This can cause changes in another area of the brain, called the hippocampus, which is responsible for long-term memory, spatial memory and navigation. Finally, excess belly fat also appears to contribute to lesions in the brain’s white matter, especially in diabetic patients—linking it not just to memory loss, but also to increased risk of stroke.
Obesity is also causes changes to the immune system, which are fanning the flames of inflammation throughout the body. This increased inflammation can impact the brain and lead to a vicious cycle of gaining more and more weight: obesity leads to inflammation, which damages certain parts of the brain, which in turn leads to more uncontrolled eating and more obesity.
There are many areas of the brain that are affected by being overweight.
- Frontal and temporal lobes—critical for planning, memory and impulse control
- Anterior cingulate gyrus—responsible for attention and executive functions
- Hippocampus—important for long-term memory, spatial memory and navigation
- Basal ganglia—essential for proper movement and coordination
Here is the catch-22. Those extra kilos impair brain function and compromise the particular areas of brain that impact a person’s ability to have a keen memory, control impulses and follow through on any kind of planning. It, therefore, becomes more difficult to successfully commit to any kind of program, especially a weight loss program. Since the impulse control part of the brain is affected, controlling those urges to help yourself to another donut or a second helping of mashed potatoes is a Herculean effort and generally doomed to fail.
Vitamin D —A Key to a Healthy Metabolism
There is one really important nutritional player when it comes to our health. This superstar nutrient is the sunshine hormone, vitamin D. (Vitamin D is really a steroid hormone rather than an actual vitamin.)
Vitamin D truly deserves the title of superstar. Each year, vitamin D research discovers additional health benefits conferred by this sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D receptors are found throughout the body including the brain. Optimal levels are absolutely necessary to insure healthy bones, healthy arteries, a robust immune system, balanced moods, optimal cognitive function, protection from hypertension, allergies, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune conditions, and fertility and PMS. Most significantly, vitamin D has been proven to be protective against 13 different kinds of cancer.
Optimal Levels of Vitamin D Are Critical for Health Here are some basic facts you need to know about vitamin D. It is a fat-soluble steroid hormone that is both made by the body and from our diet. In order for the body to produce vitamin D (cholecalciferol), the skin must be exposed to ultraviolet light, primarily from the sun. Vitamin D is further metabolized in the liver and kidneys to create the fully active form of vitamin D. Thus variations in sun exposure due to latitude, season, time of day, sunscreen use, skin pigmentation, and age will determine how much vitamin D the body makes.
Although it is known that vitamin D play a vital role for the well-being of infants, children, adults and the elderly, we presently have a global pandemic of chronically low vitamin D levels. It’s estimated that 85 percent of the American public are deficient, and as much as 95 percent of all its senior citizens. Vitamin D deficiencies are also widespread throughout the UK, with 86 percent of the population deficient in the winter and 57 percent in the summer.
Even though Australia’s is described as “sun burnt” country and is one of the sunniest countries in the world, a surprising number of its citizens are severely lacking in vitamin D. A recent report stated that as many as 1 in 3 Australians may have low vitamin D levels.
For all those on a weight loss quest, vitamin D is one of those missing pieces you have been searching for. There is overwhelming evidence that confirms the importance of keeping your vitamin D levels up to get your extra kilos down. Not only does it help achieve weight loss, it also improves other risk factors such as insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and blood sugar imbalances. If you are feeling hungry all the time no matter how much you eat, you might want to have your vitamin D levels checked. What drives insatiable hunger is the relationship between low vitamin D levels and a hormone called leptin. Leptin is a messenger molecule made in fat cells that communicates to the hypothalamus, letting it know how much fat is stored in the body. It is the hormone that communicates that you are full.
Low vitamin D levels interfere with the effectiveness of leptin. Researchers at Aberdeen University, Scotland found that obese people produced 10 per cent less vitamin D than people of average weight. The study discovered that low levels of the vitamin in blood interfered with the function of leptin, which tells the brain when the stomach is full. The study also found that excess body fat absorbs vitamin D, stopping it from entering the bloodstream. Dr Helen MacDonald, of Aberdeen University’s department of medicine and therapeutics, said: “Obese people had less vitamin D and the link between obesity and vitamin D deficiency was statistically significant.” Overweight people, shirking the sun or not taking adequate vitamin D supplementation thwart their dieting efforts in another way. Low vitamin D levels have been shown to increases fat storage. A 2009 Canadian study found that weight and body fat were significantly lower in women with normal vitamin D levels than women with insufficient levels.
It seems that fat people may be less able to convert vitamin D into its hormonally active form. A Norway study found that the more participants weighed, the lower their vitamin D levels tended to be. The researcher, Zoya Lagunova, MD, believes that obesity is associated with lower vitamin D levels since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. “Much of the vitamin D produced in the skin or ingested is distributed in fat tissue, so obese people may take in as much vitamin D from the sun, food, or supplements as people who are not obese, but their [blood] levels will tend to be lower. Obese people may need more vitamin D to end up with the same levels as a person whose weight is normal.”
How much less vitamin does an overweight person make? As it turns out, increased fatty cells can decrease the ability to make vitamin D by a factor of 4. That means that if you are carry extra weight, you may make only one quarter the amount of vitamin D compared to a leaner person. Vitamin D is also an important factor in diabetes. Low levels of vitamin D has been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. After following more than 5,000 people for five years, an Australian research team found that those with lower than average vitamin D levels had a 57 percent increased risk of developing diabetes, compared to those within the recommended range.
Low levels of vitamin D are also known to nearly double the risk of cardiovascular disease if you already have diabetes. Diabetics, who are deficient in vitamin D and cannot process cholesterol normally, tend to have it build up in their blood vessels, hence increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Vitamin D also helps keep blood sugar levels under control. In type 2 diabetes the body can’t use insulin it produces efficiently to control blood sugar levels. Vitamin D plays a role by increasing the release of insulin. In one study, researchers evaluated the vitamin D levels and the chance of developing unbalanced blood sugar metabolism. In this study, subjects were evaluated for serum vitamin D levels and followed for 7 years to determine the effects on blood sugar metabolism. The study showed that the subjects with the highest vitamin D levels had a 40 percent increase in supporting optimal future blood sugar balance.
If you want to lose weight and keep it off, it is critical to check your vitamin D levels. The higher your vitamin D levels the higher your leptin levels and the more your blood sugar will remain balanced. Vitamin D helps your body respond to the correct metabolic messages. High vitamin D levels increase your ability to lose weight and losing weight will increase your vitamin D levels. All of which will reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, not to mention most chronic illnesses.
While it is important for most people to take vitamin D supplementation, especially the overweight, children and elderly, it is critically important to check your vitamin D levels. Taking a vitamin D supplement may not get you into optimal range, which is where you want to be. Its optimal blood vitamin D levels that count. The proper blood test is called 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25-OH), which is included in the basic blood workup. In Australia optimal levels should be 150–200 nmol/L. In the U.S., optimal levels should be between 70–100 ng/mL. Do not settle for less than optimal levels if your goal is the best health possible.
Sherrill Sellman, ND
Dr. Sellman is an international author, psychotherapist, women’s health advocate and seminar presenter. Through her books, Hormone Heresy?—?What Women Must Know About Their Hormones and Mothers Prevent Your Daughters from Getting Breast Cancer, lectures and seminars, she has empowered women all over the world to make more educated and informed choices about their health.