Alrighty brace yourselves dahlinks! Mama's climbing up on her soap box. I have a message and I NEED to shout it from the rooftops!
We live in an age of overabundance of super-convenient, supersized, energy-dense, nutrient-bereft foods. Food is everywhere, in vast quantities, and it can be so hard to resist. In fact, many of the big food companies invest heavily in finding ways to make processed and snack foods impossible to resist!
Overnutrition may be a term you haven't heard yet. It’s a concept that hasn’t yet hit the blogosphere, but it's everywhere in the peer reviewed scientific literature and you need to know about this!
This is because many of the chronic illnesses in our society are now being described by scientists as "diseases of overnutrition".
When we consume more energy than our bodies need to function, this causes stress at the cellular level as our bodies strain to process more food than it can deal with in one sitting.
Scientists are increasingly unveiling the biochemical and metabolic processes that occur in our bodies when we regularly consume more food than our body needs to fuel it. As the research has evolved, it is now clear that overnutrition is a significant causal factor in the following conditions:
1. Insulin Resistance
When we eat, the carbohydrate in our food is converted to glucose in our bloodstream. This in turn stimulates the beta cells in our pancreas to release insulin. Insulin serves as the signal to our cells to absorb glucose to use for fuel, and when cells absorb glucose out of our bloodstream this brings our blood glucose levels back down to normal levels. But if we are eating a lot more carbohydrate than our bodies can use, our cells just can’t take in any more glucose. And a that’s when the trouble starts... The pancreas will keep pumping out insulin because there are still elevated levels of glucose in the blood. Over time, the receptors on our cells that respond to insulin and allow glucose to enter the cell from our bloodstream become de-sensitised. What follows is a vicious cycle of impaired cellular glucose uptake and increasing insulin levels - and because insulin is an anabolicic (storage) hormone, this can lead to weight gain.
2. Type 2 Diabetes
If weight gain wasn't bad enough, Insulin Resistance is a precursor to Type 2 Diabetes. If the poor overworked beta cells in our pancreas have to constantly stay on high alert, pumping out ever-increasing amounts of insulin in an effort to get our blood glucose back into safe range, they will eventually get worn out. And type 2 diabetes happens when the beta cells lose the ability to produce insulin. This is a serious medical condition. Our body works hard to keep our blood glucose within a pretty tight range. And with good reason - excess glucose in the blood is toxic. I’ve seen the effects of elevated blood glucose first hand - my father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when I was a teenager. But only after he had lost most of his sight and suffered nerve and circulation damage in his legs and feet due to the damage his excess blood sugar caused in the small blood vessels in his body.
Overnutrition causes dyslipidemia via both excess carbohydrate and fat intake. The liver works to process excess glucose into glycogen (the storage form of glucose), but it can only store a small amount, so it converts excess glucose to triglycerides, which then circulate in our bloodstream as free fatty acids. These free fatty acids from excess carb ingestion, plus the fatty acids from the dietary fats we consume, are circulated in our bloodstream until they can be deposited into our fat cells. It was once thought that fat cells had an almost unlimited capacty for expansion. But sadly, our modern era of overeating has revealed that there is in fact a limit to how much a fat cell can expand, and how much circulating fatty acids our fat cells can absorb. So when we are in a state of overnutrition, not only do our muscle and other body cells exceed their limit for the amount of glucose they can absorb, our fat cells also hit capacity - they just can’t take in any more fatty acids from the food we eat, so they continue to circulate around our bloodstream as “free fatty acids”.
4. Central Obesity, Visceral Adipose Tissue and Ectopic Fat Deposition
The free fatty acids circulating in our bloodstream due to overnutrition have to go somewhere… Eventually they deposit where they they don’t belong - in our organs, especially around our mid-section… Visceral Adipose Tissue (VAT) is the fat that accumulates around your mid-section. A lot of this fat is actually “marbling” our muscles and internal organs. This is known as ectopic fat deposition and it ain't healthy! The risks of VAT are so concerning that it is often referred to as “toxic fat”. It is associated with Metabolic Syndrome, Fatty Liver Disease, Heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and mortality, and that is why you may have seen public health messages cautioning you to monitor your waist measurement.
5. Atherosclerosis and Heart Disease
The free fatty acids that circulate in our bloodstream and deposit in out midsection and organs can also end up as fatty streaks on the inside of our arteries, leading to atherosclerosis and potentially heart attack.
Scientists are beginning to realise a few things about our fat cells. Firstly, they are not the inert “blobs” we once thought they were. Fat is in fact extremely metabolically active. When we chronically consume more macronutrients (especially carbohydrates and fats) than our bodies can assimilate at the cellular level, this places the cells in our body - including our fat cells - under stress. Fat cells in distress caused by overnutrition release a cascade of highly inflammatory substances. And this is not a good thing. Inflammation is supposed to be an acute and relatively short-lived response, for example to an injury or infection. Ongoing inflammation, even at relatively low levels, is harmful to our health.
So does this all sound pretty scary? Well it is!
But the good news is that we have the power to prevent all of these things!!!
We can make sure that our meals (and snacks!) provide us with just the right amounts of energy and nutrients to fuel us, and not to place our poor bodies into a state of metabolic stress caused by overeating. Bottom line, keep an eye on how much energy you are taking in at any one sitting.
This does not have to mean deprivation! It can mean some simple, easy swaps to your daily eating habits - swaps that increase the nutrient-density of your food whilst reducing the energy density. Things like:
adding in more fruit and veggies
cutting out sugary soft drinks and sodas
cutting back on alcohol
keeping an eye on our portion sizes
choosing nutrient dense whole foods instead of energy-dense-nutrient bereft processed and convenience foods
And another awesome thing we can also do, is to increase our daily energy needs by exercising more and by undertaking strength training to increase the amount of muscle on our body - this will increase our metabolic rate.
The concept of Staying out of Overnutrition can be incredibly valuable in helping you make nutrition choices that will keep you healthy and set you up for a vibrant long life! When we realise that stuffing ourselves does much more harm than causing "food babies" and indigestion, it can help us to make better choices about what we eat and when.
So here’s a little assignment for you: during the next week, check in with yourself after each meal and ask yourself: Did I eat enough for my needs? Or did I stray into overnutrition? It's a simple rule of thumb with the potential to make a BIG difference to your future health!
If you need guidance with this, feel free to contact me and book a consultation! I can help you identify your daily energy (and micronutrient!) needs and the easiest, most delicious ways to meet them!