The world’s current human overweight/obesity crisis and metabolic syndrome pandemic may have their roots in a common, simple error: Too many people think that modern food is always a source of nutrition.
The mistake is easy to make, as people know dietary nutrition can only be acquired by eating, but people are less aware that eating by itself is not always the same as acquiring nutrition.
Over the last 50 years or so, it would appear that there is an increasingly large fog of confusion over food and nutrition, and this fog seems to be expanding every year. Food, particularly processed foods, is becoming less and less of a source of nutrition, despite the common labelling of various ingredients, and the regulated addition of various vitamins and minerals in many items of food.
Nevertheless, the incontrovertibly common outcomes of consuming many modern foods are often weight problems and in too many cases, metabolic syndrome.
And metabolic syndrome is defined as a group of metabolic disorders that aggravate the risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and impairs the health of various major organs, such as the liver and kidneys.
As an indication of the scale of the problem, the numbers of people who are overweight or obese are now simply staggering. According to the data from 2018, 73.6% of American adults were either overweight or obese, with the sobering observation that there were more obese than overweight people in the United States, with 42.4% of the population with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30.
The global incidence of people with a BMI of 25 or higher (overweight or worse) is currently running at over 40%, based on World Health Organisation (WHO) data.
Globally, there were many more obese people (13.4%) than underweight people (8%) in 2016, according to the WHO, a reversal of the status from a few decades ago. Even as recently as 1975, only 2.8% of people were classed as obese.
Is obesity addictive?
Most people would have read by now that some ingredients, in particular, refined sugars are potentially as addictive as hard drugs such as cocaine. Wired deep inside the human brain are structures such as the nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortex, and the limbic system, and overconsuming refined sugars causes the release of a potent neurotransmitter called dopamine which floods these areas.
Persistent over-consumption of sugar can lead to changes in parts of the limbic system, in particular the mesocorticolimbic system, which is a major part of the brain’s “reward pathway”, the neural mechanism that makes people feel good emotionally.
Once the mesocorticolimbic system is affected, sugar becomes an addiction that cannot be easily overcome.
The addictive properties of sugar are one of the many reasons many health publications and websites advocate against the overconsumption of refined sugars, which are euphemistically labelled as “free sugars” by the food industry.
But there is nothing “free” about these sugars (usually sucrose and fructose), and the payment is eventually extracted via their impact on human health, which is commonly manifested as metabolic syndrome.
So it would be silly to suggest that obesity itself is somehow addictive or even a desirable condition.
But almost every obese person is an addict, and most overweight people are also similarly addicted, despite all the scientific, proven information available and the constant warnings about the impact of bad diets on our health.
And this raises an interesting question: What frailties in the human mind predispose many people to become addicted to lousy diets and weight gain?
It turns out there are several crucial factors, and some are related to birds, their eggs and stickleback fish.
Many foods can be addictive, so let us stay on the subject of sugars.
For many people, especially in the West, their daily diets start wrongly from the first meal they eat. This is because they are conditioned to want a hearty breakfast, often heavily laced with sugar probably because of some perceived required “energy boost” to start the day.
The WHO recommends an upper limit of 10% of free sugars in the daily calorie intake. For a 2,000 calorie-a-day person, that equates to 50g of sugar per day, roughly 10 teaspoons, and free sugars here generally refer to refined sugars added to food items that may or may not already contain their own sugars.
Additionally, the WHO considers consuming only 5% of free sugars to be a lower and better health policy target for humans (roughly five teaspoons a day).
So the messaging is confused from the outset, and probably made deliberately so because of the influence of the large food processing industries, who are well aware of the addictive properties of sugar.
Therefore, for millions of people, the first meal in the morning would already have exceeded the WHO’s upper guideline for daily sugar consumption, as a bowl of cereal can have 20g of sugar (roughly four teaspoons) and a glass of fruit juice can contain more than 35g of sugar (roughly seven teaspoons).
Now add common daily snacks such as a fizzy tinned drink (up to 40-60g of sugar) and a 100g bar of chocolate (around 50-60g of sugar), and the problem becomes clear.
Persist with such breakfasts/snacks for an extended period and the mesocorticolimbic system will do the rest to establish an addiction to sugar.
Persistent familiarity and constant overdosing are how normal addictions happen, as with drug addicts.
However, some factors still have to drive people to doggedly consume sugars in the first place. In our distant Paleolithic past, primitive humans had found that sugary fruits offered quick energy boosts, which would have improved their ability to hunt and forage for food.
As a result, humans had evolved an embedded neurological pathway in the brain that is stimulated by the taste and consumption of sugar, and this pathway still exists today, along with many other hard-wired pathways stimulated by other triggers.
These immutable neurological pathways exist in many other creatures too, and their responses to the relevant stimuli can be extremely odd. Some bizarrely exaggerated responses were discovered by Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen in the 1930s, who found that birds that laid speckled eggs would ignore their own eggs to sit on larger fake plaster eggs marked with polka dots.
He termed this phenomenon as a neurological response to “supernormal stimuli”, where intensified (larger, brighter, exaggerated) stimuli can invoke stronger, and more preferential, responses in an animal over the real, natural stimuli for which an existing neurological pathway was evolved.
It turns out that species after species also respond to supernormal stimuli, including male stickleback fish which would prefer to attack wooden models of fish painted with a bright red dot instead of their real mating challengers during the mating season.
Humans are also profoundly affected and motivated by supernormal stimuli like models promoting diverse goods.
Supernormal stimuli are not always visual. For example, humans have neurological predispositions towards foods that taste sweet and/or salty, both rare items in our Paleolithic past. As such, people’s brains can overreact when consuming foods overloaded with sugar, salt, and other constituents (in effect, “over-enjoy” themselves neurologically).
Too much such extreme “enjoyment” can, like sugar, overload the mesocorticolimbic system with dopamine and establish an addiction to acquiring more of the same supernormal stimulation.
This may result in, for example, driving long distances just to taste a dish at a recommended restaurant in a remote location. And if you are Malaysian, I know that you very probably know exactly what I mean.
Greed for life?
It would be easy to regard the impact of supernormal stimuli as some articulation of greed. Also, humans have more complex brains than animals and therefore one might assume humans generally have better control over their innate desires.
That may be plausible in theory, though it is probably more true that humans have and can react to many more supernormal stimuli than simpler animals. Additionally, the degree of human reaction may be more much severe than for animals.
The fearsome impact of supernormal stimulation has not gone unnoticed by the food industry, and they apply many subtle techniques in various combinations to induce a form of greed for whatever food product is being promoted.
A classic example may begin with the packaging of processed foods, which usually feature pictures such as colourful cartoons, happy/professional people, beautiful landscapes, delicious foods, cheerful logos, outlandish claims, etc, to trigger the interest and curiosity of consumers.
The general idea, though, is always the same, which is to induce trust and confidence that the food item inside would provide some form of eating pleasure and/or worthwhile nutrition, even when none actually exists.
And once the consumer starts eating the food, the addictive processed ingredients will probably do what they are designed to do to the human mesocorticolimbic system.
It is a pity that dietary fibre is not a supernormal stimulus for humans, because that would solve many of the current human weight issues and associated diseases. Note there is no need for any free sugars at all in our diets.
Refined sugars did not exist during the evolution of modern man, and the overwhelming evidence is that the human body has not yet adapted to tolerate them well, at least not in the overwhelming quantities available.
This comment about refined sugar applies also to other purified and processed foods, which are alien to the metabolic systems humans have evolved.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.