It’s been almost 15 years since obesity was first shown to be a greater risk factor for death than starvation (1). Despite better awareness, the trend continues to worsen, mainly because of the fact that our eating habits are socially and culturally acquired when we are young. Both local and global organizations, such as the WHO, are at the forefront of concrete actions against obesity, particularly in children.
As we know, the younger a consumer, the more likely they are to fall for predatory marketing strategies (2). What’s worse, the behaviours that people acquire during their youth, such as eating preferences and habits, are often the ones that are the most difficult to change. One of most effective ways to combat our world’s ever deteriorating trend of obesity is through nutritional education and consumer awareness.
Processed Sugar is the Enemy
Image source: https://www.dna-lean.co.uk/blog/lose-weight-fast/
It’s nearly impossible to say where the obesity problem first started. Many claim that our mostly sedentary lives are to blame, while others focus on the outstanding health impact of ultra- and highly-processed foods. Both sides are true to an extent. We are moving less and spending less time outdoors than our predecessors did and, studies say, the situation is even more dire for our young ones (3). Despite this, the levels of obesity we are currently witnessing are nearly impossible to achieve on a whole foods approach to eating, even with very little exercise.
Eating is a sure-fire way to amass a couple thousands of unwanted calories. Drinking, on the other hand, is an even faster and easier way to do so. In the U.S., the amount of sugar in sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) has increased over three-fold over the past two decades alone (4). The national cost of obesity is nearing $200 billion every year and these appealing liquids are a major part of the reason why. When your average 500 ml bottle of soda contains around 50 grams of added sugar (and the NHS, for example, recommends no more than 30g a day), it may be time to take a step back and re-evaluate one’s behaviour, as well as the food market as a whole.
Such a re-evaluation is all the more pressing as SSBs are known to cause and exacerbate obesity in children and in adults (5, 6). The link is direct and indisputable, despite the best efforts of companies to shift the narrative to lifestyle choices. The problem is that, just as we were conditioned to like these drinks, so are the next generations. If we let the market dictate what we eat instead of common sense and rigorous health guidelines, it’s very likely that we will also join the millions who already suffer from serious health concerns such as diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, various related disabilities, and premature death. Some of us already have.
Fortunately, there is a way to reverse some of the conditions that are caused by our diets.
Antioxidants and Obesity
The better the quality of what you eat, the more likely it is that you’ll shed excess weight and become disease-free (7). The reason for this is two-fold:
- Quality, whole food items do not have the excess sugar, processed fat, and chemicals that unnecessarily boost your daily calorie intake or that expose you to various health conditions.
- The latter substances are replaced by natural vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients which help you lose weight in a sustainable and consistent manner.
The solution is simple, but challenging to implement. Start to adhere to the below guidelines:
- Scrap highly-processed food items.
- Eat a balanced and adequate whole-food diet.
- Increase your amount of physical activity.
Following these basic guideline will not only help you lose fat, but also dramatically improve your health. Clinical trials have already shown that whole-food diets can reverse type 2 diabetes and the risk of CVD when coupled with moderate exercise (8).
One way that a balanced, whole-food diet helps promote weight loss is by supplying you with plenty of antioxidants – vitamins such as A, C, and E being some of the most effective substances to this end.
How do they work?
To understand antioxidants, we have to look at mitochondria, the subunits of our cells that are responsible for generating over 90% of all our entire cellular energy, including the type used by our muscles, through the chemical adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The problem is that this manufacture of energy has a by-product in the form of reactive oxygen species (ROS) (9), which are unstable molecules that can severely damage our bodies. These reactive intermediaries, such as hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radical, and superoxide, have been found to play a significant role in the development of various cancers, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular diseases, neurological illnesses, pulmonary diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, and many more afflictions.
To combat free radicals, our metabolism uses natural antioxidants, among them vitamins C, E, carotenoids, and other enzymes (10), which help stabilise the molecules before they get a chance to wreak havoc. A careful balance, also referred to as redox homeostasis, must be achieved between the two sides in order for you to be healthy. So where does eating come in? Not surprisingly, high-fat (mostly trans and saturated fats, not the polyunsaturated type you’d find in fish and olive oil) and high-sugar (refined, not found naturally in fruit) diets were found to significantly increase ROS, as well as total fat mass (11). These diets are a big part of the reason why our world is grappling with metabolic syndrome and obesity.
Lower quality foods severely decrease your chances of acquiring those vital nutrients required to maintain the redox balance, which further exposes you to inflammation and illnesses. When taken in isolation, as supplements, antioxidants seem to be less effective than when they are obtained from a balanced diet. It may be that they are more effective when ingested alongside other nutrients present in these food items, such as fibre. What’s more, with the help of the aerobic metabolism of glucose, it was also found that antioxidant-rich foods help us produce more energy, both during and after exercise, thereby allowing us to have increased athletic and fat burning capacity.
By effectively counteracting the oxidative stress caused by excess ROS, as well as by increasing our physical performance, mitochondrial antioxidants play a significant role in weight loss. Without changes in eating behaviour, however, no amount of vitamin C and E supplements on their own, will help you be leaner and healthier. As is the case with the redox balance, the core issue most of us are facing today is the difficulty to achieve a balanced, varied, and healthy diet that mostly consists (>85%) of whole-food items. The reasons for the latter obstacle are complex and they involve aspects of our living that range from our early childhood to our current environment.
Yet, as difficult as this may be, we need to take action and eliminate highly- and ultra-processed food items from our diets effective immediately. At the very least, we need to reduce them to the point where they comprise less than 10%, ideally 5%, of our total energy intake. By refusing to rely on them for the bulk of our energy and by increasing the amount of whole foods we eat, we can provoke a noteworthy transformation in the way we look and feel, especially if we also include three sessions of 30 minutes’ worth of moderate physical activity every week. Currently, the situation is problematic, but still within our reach. There’s no telling how things might look later in the future.
- Bloomberg’s Obesity Claim
- How Big Tobacco Hooked Children on Sugary Drinks
- Recent research has shown that children are now spending only half as much time playing outdoors as their parents’ generation did
- Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
- Reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to reduce the risk of childhood overweight and obesity
- Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Obesity among Children and Adolescents: A Review of Systematic Literature Reviews
- The Best Diet: Quality Counts
- A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes
- Mitochondria-targeted antioxidants for muscle health
- How Effective Are Antioxidant Supplements in Obesity and Diabetes?
- Reactive oxygen species, nutrition, hypoxia and diseases: Problems solved?