How is the body's set point determined
June 11, 2012 9:23 PM   Subscribe

What is the mechanism by which calories gained from eating unnatural foods, i.e. foods full of chemicals and preservatives, changes a person's appetite or metabolism, leading to weight gain?

I have observed that I gain weight much more easily when I eat highly unnatural foods--processed foods that contain a long list of chemical ingredients. It seems that these additional pounds are very persistent.

Normally when I gain a bit of weight it's very easy for me to lose it. But it's almost like my set point has changed.

Is this a known phenomenon? Are there any theories for how or why this would happen? What about how to reverse it?
posted by davisnot to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It probably happens because the processed foods you're eating are less filling and you eat more of them. They may also be higher in sugars and syrups and thus mess up your insulin levels, thus priming your body to store calories as fat and leading to sugar crashes which causes more hunger.

Otherwise there is no special link between processed foods and weight gain. Processed foods do tend to have less nutritional content though, which can decrease overall feelings of wellness.
posted by schroedinger at 9:26 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I also think that the "chemicals and preservatives" are a red herring. However, they correlate closely lots of simple carbohydrates (sugar, corn syrup, refined flour) and high calorie density compared to less-processed/non-prepared/"whole" foods, which don't require their presence.
posted by pullayup at 9:33 PM on June 11, 2012

I think your question should be rephrased as "is there a mechanism...." because there isn't a mechanism for "unnatural" foods - and that's the problem.

Our bodies haven't developed to eat certain foods in certain quantities. Salt should be rare in nature, which is why we love it...but all of a sudden it's all over the place and can contribute to dehydration.

To hydrate our bodies we drink sodas and juices, crammed full of fructose - another item that should be rare in nature (typically it's found in fruits, which are seasonal). Since fructose is rare, our body doesn't have as nice a mechanism for dealing with it as glucose - which is more common in nature (but not as sweet, so not used to sweeten sodas).

Meat is a heckuva lot more abundant at the grocery store than it is in nature as well, and contributes to increased cell division.

And, finally, of course, we don't actually have to hunt for ANY of these things.

All of this - an overabundance of food and sessile nature will lead to obesity in ANY (genetically normal) animal, regardless of how processed the food is.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 9:38 PM on June 11, 2012

Ah! I also want to add that sugar and carbs aren't "bad", but the places we're getting them are from "empty" sources. Eating an orange - which is packed with fructose - contains fiber (and vitamins) which will fill you up, and is harder to get through (it takes a couple minutes to eat a fruit...). However sodas and juices will not fill you up AND can be consumed more quickly.

I did read a paper a few years ago about weight regulation and the brain, and a lot of it comes down to sugar intact, but it's a "soft" control. Your body typically wants to maintain whatever "weight" (well, glycogen and fat stores) it has now - if you start consuming but not using glucose a signal is released that essentially says, "slow down." (of course, no everyone listens to their body's signal for eating...) I believe they found about 6% of individuals had mutated and unresponsive receptors for this signal no matter what, and unsurprisingly those individuals were obese. I will try to find it....I read it for a biochem class a looong time ago....
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 9:47 PM on June 11, 2012

this video is excellent from ucsf med school professor on metabolic function and why you gain weight: (sugar: the bitter truth)

it seems intermittent fasting resets metabolism, deals with insuline resistance and set point: (there are more if you look)
posted by zia at 10:00 PM on June 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

I was coming in to post the link to Lustig's talk (first one, above) that explains why not all calories are not equal.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:20 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The scientific research surrounding the paleo diet directly contradicts assertions that additives and processing has no effect on health or weight gain.

Typing on phone, so no links. But you can easily google around, and this has definitely been making news lately. Although mainstream media won't report entirely or thoroughly on the issue, there are plenty of accredited doctors and scientists researching this and putting the info out.

You might also find it interesting to research the effects of gluten and wheat (any wheat, even organic) has on the body, especially where diabetes, weight gain, and the mechanics behind celiac and other autoimmune diseases are concerned.

I'm not an expert. I didn't pop in here to debate.

I do work with food, and information crosses my path from time to time. I encourage the OP and anyone else that is interested (or skeptical) to do their own research.
posted by jbenben at 2:06 AM on June 12, 2012

Calories can't make you gain/lose weight any more than grams . They are units of heat. You have to eat calories of ______. Will 200 calories of motor oil affect you like 200 calories of beets? Will 100 grams of venison make you gain more weight than 100 grams of water.

Hormones cause cellular changes. We are mainly water, so are you talking water weight, fat weight.

Best book on set point.
posted by larry_darrell at 5:42 AM on June 12, 2012

What is the mechanism by which calories gained from eating unnatural foods, i.e. foods full of chemicals and preservatives, changes a person's appetite or metabolism, leading to weight gain?

"Chemicals and preservatives" generally aren't the culprit, despite what Jenny McCarthy types would have you believe. Everything is a "chemical".

The mechanisms by which processed foods contribute to weight gain and/or ill health are pretty well understood: large amounts of sugar (including fructose), trans fats, an absence of fiber, high reward / low satiety by design, and substitution for healthy foods.

The ways in which people sabotage their health by eating are all too predictable, and nobody's developing metabolic syndrome because of sodium benzoate or BHT.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:28 AM on June 12, 2012

Despite the ever-present desire to find a nutritional scapegoat, it's still mostly about the calories. The mechanism you're looking for doesn't really exist as such -- if you eat the same calories and macronutrients, you won't gain any more weight eating foods full of chemicals and preservatives. It is, however, usually easier to overeat those kinds of foods, leading to weight gain.

Some evidence:

The Dirt on Clean Eating (some NSFW images)
Surwit and colleagues compared the 6-week effects of 2 hypocaloric diets - one with 43% of the total calories as sucrose (table sugar), and one with 4% of the total calories as sucrose [15]. No significant differences were seen in the loss of bodyweight or bodyfat between the high and low-sucrose groups. ... Furthermore, no differences in blood lipids or metabolism were seen between the groups. It looks like a more sugary intake still cannot override a calorie deficit.
Hormonal Responses to a Fast-Food Meal Compared with Nutritionally Comparable Meals of Different Composition – Research Review
The 3 lunches included: (1) a fast-food meal consisting of a burger, French fries and root beer sweetened with high fructose corn syrup; (2) an organic beef meal prepared with organic foods and a root beer containing sucrose, and (3) a turkey meal consisting of a turkey sandwich and granola made with organic foods and an organic orange juice ... the blood glucose and insulin response were identical for all three meals despite one being a fast food ‘unclean’ meal and the other two being organic ‘clean’ meals.
The "Twinkie Diet"
He just finished a 10-week junk food diet of chocolate-covered snacks, cream-filled cakes, sugary cereals, cookies and chips. For good measure, each day he also threw in a protein shake, a few veggies and a vitamin/mineral supplement. ...
A 27-pound weight loss over 10 weeks
Body mass index now in the normal range (24.9)
Total body fat reduced from 33.4 to 24.9 percent (between 18 and 24 percent is good for men)
Total cholesterol reduced from 214 to 184 mg/dL (less than 200 is desirable)
LDL "bad" cholesterol went from 153 to 123 mg/dL (less than 100 is optimal)
HDL "good" cholesterol went from 37 to 46 mg/dL (60 or more is the target)
And re Dr. Lustig's lecture on sugar: The Bitter Truth about Fructose Alarmism
A recent review of the literature on fructose’s effect on satiety found no compelling case for the idea that fructose is less satiating than glucose, or that HFCS is less satiating than sucrose ... Although examples of pure fructose causing metabolic upset at high concentrations abound, especially when fed as the sole carbohydrate source, there is no evidence that thecommon fructose-glucose sweeteners do the same.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:43 AM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, please just answer the question and don't start down a rabbit hole of other nutrition conspiracies. Thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:25 AM on June 12, 2012

I will provide some anecdata. I recently lost 50+ pounds so quickly that a couple of people have given me The Anorexia Talk (I'm not, but thanks) (side note: I've now reached my goal weight and am tweaking my calories to find a maintenance level).

People ask me all the time what I'm eating, am I doing Weight Watchers or some special diet... What I'm eating is the exact same potato chips, pizza, cake, burritos, bread, sugar-coated breakfast cereal, and so on that I was eating before (including a smallish amount of fruit and veg when it happens to be convenient and looks tasty). Just much less of everything. (I'm also exercising the same amount as before, which is regularly but not strenuously.)

The only thing I've seriously changed besides portion size is to cut out non-water drinks, which for me means milk and orange juice (both "healthy" foods!). Even with pizza/chips/etc. you can plan your day to avoid feeling miserably hungry on small portions, but the liquids are basically $large_number of calories for zero fullness.

Theory for why you're finding it harder to lose weight now: getting older is a bitch.
posted by anaelith at 7:53 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

There isn't any research that indicates that any specific preservative, flavoring, or other food additive provides some kind of magic mega-calorie, or that it affects people's weight set-point or BMR.

However, many highly processed foods are calorie-dense and nutrient-sparse. Foods that are high in salt and sweeteners may (the research is somewhat preliminary on this, but seems suggestive) trigger further food cravings in many people.

Another factor is that research is pretty clear that not everyone's metabolism burns calories the same way, and not everyone's metabolism burns calories the same way throughout the course of their life cycle. Your set-point and/or your BMR may have changed; perhaps because of age, perhaps because of changes in your endocrine system (Have you had your blood sugar checked lately? If it's higher than it used to be, it may be a sign of insulin resistance. What about your thyroid?)

The bottom line is that you are going to need to work out a food and exercise plan that's right for you. Eliminating Doritos or whatever isn't going to be a magic bullet that resets your metabolism to what it was when you were 18. (Eliminating Doritos might well be part of your overall food and exercise plan, of course.) There is no one-size-fits-all answer to any of this stuff.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:42 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Shangra La Diet claims that you can manipulate your set point through the ingestion of flavorless calories (sugar water or oil). I've seen this work for some people. More information at the author's web site
posted by NotPayingAttention at 8:13 AM on June 20, 2012

« Older Selling out right from the start?   |   Will it rot before I do? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.