How junk food and sugar affects weight gain

It is now a well known fact (though there are many in denial about this) that junk foods and sugar are the most addictive ‘foods’ in our society today.

 Here are some ways to check if you or someone you know is addicted:

  • You accumulate fat around the abdominal area, and battle to get rid of it,
  • You crave sugar, refined carbohydrates (white flour based foods) and junk food,
  • You can’t control when and what you eat,
  • You feel irritable and annoyed when you don’t have a quick fix of sugar in close range,
  • You hide your addiction, and eat when no one is around.

Identify with any of those? I know I used to. The sugar craving is a vicious circle.You feel compelled to eat junk and sweets on a regular basis. The problem with these foods is the impact it has on our insulin level- as well the long term consequences to that.

Interestingly- research shows that there is a huge challenge in overcoming refined carbohydrate consumption. Apparently humans want to eat these foods and seem unable to stop based on the growing obesity epidemic. This has been proven in many studies whereby we have developed an overwhelming desire to consume unhealthy food, no matter how hard our intellect tries to avoid it.  It is now known that the limbic reward/pleasure system is activated by refined carbohydrates. So basically, we consume comfort foods for their hedonic purposes, because it has a drug like effect on our body, similar to recreational drugs.  It is the most exhilarating feeling for all our cells- which leads to the addiction.

The weight gain/ science part to it all:

Insulin Resistance

Everything we eat is able to be used to create glucose in our bodies. Carbohydrates, by definition, are sugars, and all sugars are easily converted to glucose. The amino acids that make up proteins can be converted to glucose via an enzymatic process called gluconeogenesis. Fats can also be converted to glucose-  glycerol. So, no matter where it comes from, the glucose from our meals then ends up in our blood to travel around our bodies to the tissues that need it.

Insulin is a hormone that is produced by the pancreas. It is released into the blood whenever blood levels of glucose become elevated (eg. after you have eaten a meal). Insulin unlocks the door of the cell for glucose to be used by the body cells to produce energy.  When the cells can’t open in response to glucose, the glucose remains in the bloodstream, causing high blood glucose levels, despite insulin in the bloodstream.  The pancreas is actually working overtime to produce more insulin because the body’s cells are resistant to the effects of insulin. Without insulin, cells will literally starve to death due to no glucose.

Other conditions associated with Insulin resistance are:

  • Abdominal obesity
  • Fatty Liver syndrome
  • Diabetes Type 2
  • Acanthosis nigricans
  • Skin tags

 Weight gain or Obesity

It is common knowledge that excess glucose from refined carbohydrates is  converted into fat. One of the ways the body keeps this mechanism going is through shifting the gut flora. Before grains became refined , our gut flora was exposed only to lean meat, vegetables, fruit, tubers, nuts, and thereafter whole grains and legumes. When the gut is exposed to refined carbohydrates and excess processed fats, an inflammatory response begins. After the meal, there is an inflammatory response caused by the over absorption of food by the gut bacteria.  One of the types of gut bacteria has an outer covering called the endotoxin- this is what the body ‘inflames’ over, which may lead to insulin resistance. Another finding is that over time, this gut bacteria flourishes when exposed to continuous refined carbohydrate consumption, which means greater absorption of calories as well as an increased risk of insulin resistance and obesity.

Studies have shown that  obese individuals demonstrate increased activation of brain reward circuitries in response to junk food.  This means that in obese individuals, their brain gets more excited than the average person, when exposed to junk foods. Weight gain or obesity is inevitable unless the pleasure factor- food-seeking behaviour is somehow resisted.

One can’t disregard the obvious sedentary lifestyle many lead. Most South Africans are couch potatoes. A survey revealed in 2003, 62% of men and 48% of women 15 years or older  followed a sedentary lifestyle. This lifestyle has also been associated with breast cancer, colon cancer, osteoporosis, stress, anxiety, depression and ageing less healthily. In South Africa, nutritional surveys have also shown that urban dwellers  frequently consume a diet that is high in trans fats, refined carbohydrates and added sugar. However, people living in  rural areas tend to  follow a more traditional diet.

The following trends have often been found in the typical urban diet:

  • A low  intake of  fresh fruit and vegetables
  • A high intake of processed animal fat, eg. high trans fatty acids
  • Overall increases in the calorie  intake, which leads to obesity and weight gain
  • A high and increasing alcohol intake
  • A low fibre intake because of a low intake of fruit, vegetables and legumes

A diet make-over is really needed in our country. Education about food choices are vital in changing the weight gain epidemic .

I will be writing a new article soon about food choices  and how we can make small changes to better health.


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