By Mukaila Kareem
There are guardrails to prevent overconsumption and calories have nothing to do with it. I just watched a relatable, but no less hilarious viral video titled, “I’m at the Fridge Again”, that has attracted millions of views. In this mashup video, a lady, who doubled as both choir leader and members, strongly expressed her frustrations about going to the fridge every two minutes to grab something to eat, even though she admitted that “I’m doing a little too much”. She genuinely screamed, “I need help”, but in the next breath assertively pleaded, “I want to eat again”, while her “choir members” sternly responded: “You don’t need it”!
The “again” part of “I want to eat again” made it obvious that her desire to eat had nothing to do with hunger, as in a empty stomach. If her helplessness could be resolved simply with calories, she would have stopped eating once the calorie “compartment” is filled. The problem is that everyone is flying blind trying to lose weight on calorie counts. By the way, a calorie is a unit of energy devised by man and has no physiological processes or metabolic pathways in the body. For example, the body would process 100 calories of fat and carbohydrates differently, despite the same calories. In fact, two people of the same age and size, with different eating patterns and activity levels, would not burn 100 calories of carbohydrates exactly the same.
I’m currently reading a book on refined sugar that was first published in 1972 titled, Pure, White, and Deadly, by the late British physician and physiologist, John Yudkin. In what he called “malnutrition of affluence”, he described the dissociation between palatability and nutritional value. Everyone likes sweet things, but sweet things do not necessarily have nutritional value. According to the book, “when people take sugary soft drinks, they usually do so because they are thirsty rather than because they are hungry even though the drinks supply lots of calories…along with water that is needed.” These are the two important questions posed by Dr. Yudkin: “When people put sugar in their tea or coffee, is it because they are hungry and need extra calories? Or is it that they prefer the beverage sweet?” In response to the first question, he noted that “if it were really a question of caloric needs, then [people] would be adding the sugar only when they were hungry.” He then concluded that people drink alcohol, sugary drinks and eat for pleasure and end up consuming “incidental” or unwanted calories.
Fruits taste sweet and, depending on the size, it takes about four to six oranges to make a glass of orange juice. The question is: In one sitting, can anyone eat four to 12 oranges, which is about one to two cups of orange juice, just because they are sweet or because one needs vitamin C – a claim often advanced for drinking orange juice? Put differently, can anyone chew several stalks of sugarcane to obtain 12oz of Coke or Pepsi? In reality, the answer is no in both situations.
Dietary fibres are therefore formidable guardrails against overeating, no matter how sweet and edible the fruits or tubers are. This explains why no one would gorge on boiled potatoes or West African yams, but most people would have no problem snacking on Pringles or potato chips all day. One may argue that honey has no fibre, but you would have to walk miles to find beehives. Not only that, it also requires enormous physical efforts to harvest from the trees and one must contend with the bees, the ultimate guardrails.
While it is hard to overeat on starchy tubers, fruits or salads, the presence of fibres in these foods also triggers a part of the gut to release a satiety substance called Peptide YY, which slows gut contractions and stimulates a sense of fullness in what is called “gut brake”. By the way, meat, which also contains animal fats, equally provokes Peptide YY secretion and this explains why eating competitions are usually done using hot dogs, a processed meat, and not thick juicy slabs of steaks.
Undoubtedly, Western diets have successfully bypassed the gut brake with highly processed or pre-digested and palatable foods that are devoid of fibres. More often than not, these are mostly processed carbohydrates that cause a surge of insulin, an hormone that facilitates the storage of excess food as fats and plays a leading role in building new cells.
It is often assumed that the fatty tissue is a sleepy depot, where nothing is going on other than fat storage. However, the fatty tissue is a hub of activity that responds to food intake in real time by acting centrally on the brain via the secretion of a satiety hormone called leptin and another hormone called adiponectin to the rest of the body, to facilitate the pickup of blood sugar and the burning of fat in order to maintain normal fat storage.
Overconsumption of processed foods leads to excessive fat storage, which, in turn, leads to excessive brain exposure to leptin, the satiety hormone. Sustained brain exposure to high levels of leptin causes leptin resistance, a situation in which the brain can no longer send satiety signals, leading to the persistent feeling of hunger. Uncontrolled hunger causes increase in fat mass, which prompts fatty tissue to stop the release of adiponectin that helps the body to burn fat and glucose in a normal fast-feeding cycle. Instead, the fatty tissue begins to release (proinflammatory) protein substances to block muscle from picking up blood glucose in order to leave more sugar in the bloodstream for the “hungry” brain. This vicious cycle leads to further weight gain and, in the words of a renowned endocrinologist, “the more weight you gain, the more hungry you get”, and therefore the more you find yourself “at the fridge again”.
Increasing weight gain accompanied by persistent hunger are therefore not driven by calories or the lack of self-discipline but by exposure to excessive hormones. The basic principle of toxicology says, sola dosis facit venenum (“the dose makes the poison”). As in nicotine or hard drugs, overexposing the brain to satiety hormone leads to hunger and overconsumption. Losing weight requires measures to reduce high levels of blood insulin, which, in turn, reduces leptin levels and therefore restores satiety. The two most effective ways to this are regular physical activity and fasting, or better still, both.
Jesus was quoted as saying, “man shall not live by bread alone” and the Quran says, “fasting is prescribed on you…so that you may become self-restrained.” The modern practice of three meals a day and snacks in-between is not only unhealthy, but also appears not exactly spiritual. If I may repeat, man shall not live by bread alone and when it comes to weight control, hormones take precedence, not calories and not even willpower. Hormones rule!