Effective diet has no magic pill

Diet. How’s that for a four-letter word, especially this time of year? The jolly season has been packed away with the tinsel and party hats. Suddenly, ‘tis the season to lose a few pounds.

Low carb? Low fat? No flour? No sugar? What’s a body to do?

We turned to WSU’s own informal “Food Intake and Obesity Group” in the Department of Veterinary, Comparative Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology for answers.

Well, they said, it isn’t easy. And ultimately, the best answer right now is an eight-letter word: exercise.

Okay, you didn’t need a Ph.D. to figure that out. But, you probably do need a Ph.D., and years of research, to begin to figure out why dieting to lose weight is so difficult.

From an evolutionary perspective, gaining weight during times of plenty would have been not only beneficial, but perhaps critical. While we in the 21st century have certain ideas about what is or isn’t a healthy weight, perhaps our stomach and brain are still operating according to controls that made sense for tens of thousands of years previously. Easy access to tasty food was rarely a problem; too little food of any kind was.

“There’s a lot of redundancy in the systems that maintain body weight,” said VCAPP professor Steve Simasko. Michael Wiater, a research and teaching assistant, put it another, more ominous, way: “The prospects for overriding the biological controls are not good, and it’s important to understand there will be consequences for dieters, such as chronic hunger, which can be painful.”

Simasko and Wiater, along with Sue Ritter, Gil Burns, and Bob Ritter, study various aspects of the gastrointestinal tract and enteric nervous system. At the cellular, and even molecular, level, they are trying to figure out how the gastrointestinal tract sends signals to the brain, what those signals are, and how those signals affect us when we feel hungry, what we decide to eat and when we decide to stop eating. It’s a complicated process.

And, said Burns, VCAPP researcher and associate dean at the College of Veterinary Medicine, “The more you discover, the more complicated it gets.”

Focusing on fats and carbs

For instance, Bob Ritter’s research has shown that rich or high-fat foods cause the body to release the hormone CCK, which triggers feelings of satiety. But, he said, people who consume high-fat diets over a prolonged period seem to become desensitized to CCK.

Wiater’s research also focuses on the role fat, specifically the role that the hormone leptin, plays in controlling food intake. High-fat diets are probably not a good idea, he said, but neither is a no-fat diet because our body needs some fat.

“Just about every system in the body uses fat,” he said, from the skeletal system to the reproductive system. Just like a can of gasoline in your garage, he said, stored fat can be essential in an emergency or deadly in combination with other combustibles.

If high-fat and no-fat diets are suspect, what about low-carb?

Well, Sue Ritter’s research looks at the brain’s overarching need for glucose, a form of carbohydrate. While the rest of our body can utilize fat and protein as fuel, our brain needs a steady supply of glucose to keep it firing and, if faced with a shortage, will mobilize a multi system response to get more.

“Carbohydrate stores in the body are very tightly regulated, and reductions below the regulated levels are potent stimulants for appetite,” she said. Over the long run, having ample carbohydrates is going to be a healthier choice, she said. “That would be my angle on it.”

Burns, who studies the role of N-methyl-d-aspartate receptors, which are involved in triggering feelings of satiety, had two suggestions: never tell a child to clean his or her plate and if a restaurant (or your grandmother) serves you a too-big meal, take half of it home. At some point, he said, too much food begins to feel like just enough.

But even that is difficult to explain. Simasko mentioned a study where similar rats were all given unlimited access to tasty, high-calorie food. Some of them got fat, he said, but others didn’t. Presumably the trim rats weren’t using willpower to resist the food; they just didn’t want as much. It isn’t fair, but that’s how it is.

Cut calories, boost exercise

In any event, Simasko and his colleagues are unanimous that the best way to lose weight is simply to reduce the calories you consume and increase the calories you burn.

“The bottom line is, you’ve got to eat less and have more activity,” Simasko said. “What (you) really need to do if (you) want to lose weight is have a lifestyle change.”

Walk whenever possible, Simasko said, instead of jumping in your car.

Wiater recommended taking up a sport, one you can grow old with: swimming, for instance, instead of basketball.

So there it is, expert advice from food intake specialists: eat a varied diet in moderation and get more exercise. A good way to start the new year.

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