We have two criteria to narrow our search for the cause of modern fat gain:
- It has to be new to the human environment
- It has to cause leptin resistance or otherwise disturb the setpoint
In the last post, I described two mechanisms that may contribute to elevating the body fat set point by causing leptin resistance: inflammation in the hypothalamus, and impaired leptin transport into the brain due to elevated triglycerides. After more reading and discussing it with my mentor, I've decided that the triglyceride hypothesis is on shaky ground*. Nevertheless, it is consistent with certain observations:
- Fibrate drugs that lower triglycerides can lower fat mass in rodents and humans
- Low-carbohydrate diets are effective for fat loss and lower triglycerides
- Fructose can cause leptin resistance in rodents and it elevates triglycerides (1)
- Fish oil reduces triglycerides. Some but not all studies have shown that fish oil aids fat loss (2)
The Role of Digestive Health
What causes inflammation in the hypothalamus? One of the most interesting hypotheses is that increased intestinal permeability allows inflammatory substances to cross into the circulation from the gut, irritating a number of tissues including the hypothalamus.
Dr. Remy Burcelin and his group have spearheaded this research. They've shown that high-fat diets cause obesity in mice, and that they also increase the level of an inflammatory substance called lipopolysaccharide (LPS) in the blood. LPS is produced by gram-negative bacteria in the gut and is one of the main factors that activates the immune system during an infection. Antibiotics that kill gram-negative bacteria in the gut prevent the negative consequences of high-fat feeding in mice.
Burcelin's group showed that infusing LPS into mice on a low-fat chow diet causes them to become obese and insulin resistant just like high-fat fed mice (4). Furthermore, adding 10% of the soluble fiber oligofructose to the high-fat diet prevented the increase in intestinal permeability and also largely prevented the body fat gain and insulin resistance from high-fat feeding (5). Oligofructose is food for friendly gut bacteria and ends up being converted to butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids in the colon. This results in lower intestinal permeability to toxins such as LPS. This is particularly interesting because oligofructose supplements cause fat loss in humans (6).
A recent study showed that blood LPS levels are correlated with body fat, elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, and insulin resistance in humans (7). However, a separate study didn't come to the same conclusion (8). The discrepancy may be due to the fact that LPS isn't the only inflammatory substance to cross the gut lining-- other substances may also be involved. Anything in the blood that shouldn't be there is potentially inflammatory.
Overall, I think gut dysfunction probably plays a major role in obesity and other modern metabolic problems. Insufficient dietary fiber, micronutrient deficiencies, excessive gut irritating substances such as gluten, abnormal bacterial growth due to refined carbohydrates (particularly sugar), and omega-6:3 imbalance may all contribute to abnormal gut bacteria and increased gut permeability.
The Role of Fatty Acids and Micronutrients
Any time a disease involves inflammation, the first thing that comes to my mind is the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fats. The modern Western diet is heavily weighted toward omega-6, which are the precursors to some very inflammatory substances (as well as a few that are anti-inflammatory). These substances are essential for health in the correct amounts, but they need to be balanced with omega-3 to prevent excessive and uncontrolled inflammatory responses. Animal models have repeatedly shown that omega-3 deficiency contributes to the fat gain and insulin resistance they develop when fed high-fat diets (9, 10, 11).
As a matter of fact, most of the papers claiming "saturated fat causes this or that in rodents" are actually studying omega-3 deficiency. The "saturated fats" that are typically used in high-fat rodent diets are refined fats from conventionally raised animals, which are very low in omega-3. If you add a bit of omega-3 to these diets, suddenly they don't cause the same metabolic problems, and are generally superior to refined seed oils, even in rodents (12, 13).
I believe that micronutrient deficiency also plays a role. Inadequate vitamin and mineral status can contribute to inflammation and weight gain. Obese people typically show deficiencies in several vitamins and minerals. The problem is that we don't know whether the deficiencies caused the obesity or vice versa. Refined carbohydrates and refined oils are the worst offenders because they're almost completely devoid of micronutrients.
Vitamin D in particular plays an important role in immune responses (including inflammation), and also appears to influence body fat mass. Vitamin D status is associated with body fat and insulin sensitivity in humans (14, 15, 16). More convincingly, genetic differences in the vitamin D receptor gene are also associated with body fat mass (17, 18), and vitamin D intake predicts future fat gain (19).
Exiting the Niche
I believe that we have strayed too far from our species' ecological niche, and our health is suffering. One manifestation of that is body fat gain. Many factors probably contribute, but I believe that diet is the most important. A diet heavy in nutrient-poor refined carbohydrates and industrial omega-6 oils, high in gut irritating substances such as gluten and sugar, and a lack of direct sunlight, have caused us to lose the robust digestion and good micronutrient status that characterized our distant ancestors. I believe that one consequence has been the dysregulation of the system that maintains the fat mass "setpoint". This has resulted in an increase in body fat in 20th century affluent nations, and other cultures eating our industrial food products.
In the next post, I'll discuss my thoughts on how to reset the body fat setpoint.
* The ratio of leptin in the serum to leptin in the brain is diminished in obesity, but given that serum leptin is very high in the obese, the absolute level of leptin in the brain is typically not lower than a lean person. Leptin is transported into the brain by a transport mechanism that saturates when serum leptin is not that much higher than the normal level for a lean person. Therefore, the fact that the ratio of serum to brain leptin is higher in the obese does not necessarily reflect a defect in transport, but rather the fact that the mechanism that transports leptin is already at full capacity.