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Two surprising reasons behind the obesity epidemic: Too much salt, not enough water

Scientific studies and media coverage are rife with warnings on how sugar, carbohydrates, saturated fat and lack of exercise contribute to obesity. And tens of millions of Americans are still overweight or obese in large part because of the classic Western diet and lifestyle. As an educator, researcher and professor of medicine, I have spent more than 20 years investigating the causes of obesity, as well as related conditions such as diabetes,…

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There are several cautions about how sugar, carbohydrates, saturated fat, and a lack of exercise lead to obesity in scientific studies and media coverage. And the traditional Western diet and lifestyle are largely to blame for the fact that tens of millions of Americans are still overweight or obese.

I have spent more than 20 years studying the causes of obesity and related illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, and chronic kidney disease as an educator, researcher, and professor of medicine.

In all the years I’ve spent researching obesity and associated illnesses, I’ve found that there isn’t a lot written on two crucial components of this extremely complex picture: dehydration and excessive salt consumption. Both have been linked to obesity.

Lessons from a Sand Rat in the Desert

The desert sand rat, Psammomys obesus, a half-pound rodent with a high-pitched squeak that lives in the saline marshes and deserts of Northern Africa, gives us a hint about the impact that these conditions play in nature. It barely survives by consuming the stems of Salicornia, often known as glasswort, a plant that resembles asparagus.

The luscious, succulent sap of the glasswort is packed with water that is salty, with levels as high as those in seawater, despite being deficient in nutrition.

Recent research has revealed fresh explanations for why the salty sap of glasswort can be so appealing to desert sand rats. It is likely that a high-salt diet aids the sand rat in converting the relatively small quantity of carbs it consumes into fructose, a kind of sugar that occurs naturally in fruits, honey, and some vegetables, despite the fact that this has not yet been demonstrated particularly in sand rats.

When there is a lack of food and clean water, this aids the animal’s survival. This is so that the animal can store fat and carbs to prevent famine by turning on a “survival switch” that drives foraging and food intake.

However, when the rat is kept in captivity and fed the typical rodent diet, which contains around 50% carbs, it develops diabetes and obesity very quickly. The mouse, however, stays slender when given fresh veggies low in starchy carbs.

Many Americans unknowingly act like caged desert sand rats, according to my research and that of many other scientists over the years, even though very few live in conditions where food and water are scarce. They keep flipping on the survival switch.

Our diets and fructose

As previously indicated, the simple sugar fructose appears to play a crucial part in turning on this survival switch that causes fat synthesis.

Small levels of fructose, such as those found in a single apple, are not the issue; rather, it is fructose in excess amounts that is harmful to human health. Table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are the main sources of fructose for most people. In the typical American diet, these two sugars account for 15% of all calories.

These sugars tempt consumers to overeat, which can result in weight gain, fat storage, and prediabetes.

Additionally, fructose is a sugar that our bodies naturally produce, and research suggests that it may be sufficient to cause obesity.

Since fructose is created from glucose, it is produced more frequently when blood glucose levels are up. When we consume large quantities of rice, cereal, potatoes, and white bread—carbs that quickly release glucose into the blood—this process takes place.

Notably, dehydration, which promotes the formation of fat, can also enhance fructose production.

Fat contains water.

Fat serves two main purposes. To save calories at a period when food is not available is the first one, which is well recognized.

The provision of water is fat’s additional significant but lesser-known role.

Let’s be clear: Water does not exist in fat. However, as fat decomposes, water is produced in the body. In relation to the amount of fat burned, a sizable amount is created. Because of how important it is, certain creatures rely on fat to supply water when it is scarce.

Whales are just one illustration. They consume some seawater, but the majority of their water comes from the food they consume. And when they go for long stretches without eating, they largely obtain water through the metabolism of fat.

No fries, please.

It’s important to recognize the contribution dehydration makes to obesity. After consuming salty foods, it frequently happens. The generation of fructose and fat is influenced by both dehydration and salt ingestion.

Because of this, salty french fries are very calorie-dense. The salt induces a condition resembling dryness that promotes the fructose conversion of the french fry’s starch.

Additionally, research indicates that the majority of overweight or obese persons don’t drink enough water. Compared to people who are lean, they are much more prone to be dehydrated. Compared to the salt intake of lean persons, theirs is also relatively high.

According to research, individuals who are obese usually have high amounts of vasopressin, a hormone that aids the kidneys in retaining water to control urine volume.

Recent research suggests that vasopressin may also accelerate the formation of fat.

Vasopressin may actually help someone survive if they are in danger of famine or dehydration. The majority of the metabolic effects of high fructose, such as weight gain, fat buildup, fatty liver, and prediabetes, however, may be driven by vasopressin in people who are not at risk.

increasing water intake

Does this imply that increasing our water intake will aid in weight loss? The notion has frequently been mocked by the medical establishment. However, even when the mice consumed diets high in sugar and fat, our research team discovered that feeding the mice more water reduced weight growth and the onset of prediabetes.

Additionally, there is mounting evidence that most people consume too little water overall, and increasing water consumption may aid in weight loss in obese individuals.

I recommend eight large glasses of water a day because of this. Eight is probably sufficient, so avoid assuming that more is better. There have been instances where individuals drank to the point of “water intoxication.” People who have heart, kidney, or liver issues, as well as those who have just undergone surgery or are long-distance runners, are particularly at risk for this issue. Always consult your doctor before increasing your water intake.

A diet heavy in salt and low in water made sense for the desert sand rat and for our ancestors who foraged for food. But modern humans no longer live in such manner. More water consumption and less salt consumption are two straightforward, affordable, and beneficial techniques that may help prevent or treat obesity.

This story was first posted on The Conversation, a non-profit news outlet that shares viewpoints from academic authorities.

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The National Institutes of Health, the Veteran’s Health Administration, and the Department of Defense have provided funding to Richard Johnson, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, to help him comprehend the function of fructose metabolism in a range of metabolic disorders. Additionally, he owns stock in Colorado Research Partners LLC, which is working on creating inhibitors of the metabolism of fructose. He is also the author of Nature Wants Us to Be Fat, which explores the science of fructose and its connection to obesity and metabolic problems and will be published by Benbella Books in 2022.