If there is one thing we know for sure about obesity management, it is the sad fact, that no diet, exercise, medication, not even bariatric surgery, will permanently reset the body’s tendency to defend and regain its body weight to its set point – this generally being the highest weight that has been achieved and maintained for a notable length of time.
Thus, any effective long-term treatment has to offset the complex neurobiology that will eventually doom every weight-loss attempt to “failure” (no, anecdotes don’t count!).
Just how complex and overpowering this biological system that regulates body weight is, is described in a comprehensive review by the undisputed leaders in this field (Michael Schwartz, Randy Seeley, Eric Ravussin, Rudolph Leibel and colleagues) published in Endocrine Reviews. Indeed the paper is nothing less than a “Scientific Statement” from the venerable Endocrine Society, or, in other words, these folks know what they’re talking about when it comes to the science of energy balance.
As the authors remind us,
“In its third year of existence, the Endocrine Society elected Sir Harvey Cushing as President. In his presidential address, he advocated strongly in favor of adopting the scientific method and abandoning empiricism to better inform the diagnosis and treatment of endocrine disease. In doing so, Cushing helped to usher in the modern era of endocrinology and with it, the end of organo-therapy. (In an interesting historical footnote, Cushing’s Energy Homeostasis and the Physiological Control of Body-Fat Stores presidential address was given in , the same year that insulin was discovered.)”
Over 30 pages, backed by almost 350 scientific citations, the authors outline in excruciating detail just how complex the biological system that regulates, defends, and restores body weight actually is. Moreover, this system is not static but rather, is strongly influenced and modulated by environmental and societal factors.
Indeed, after reading this article, it seems that the very notion, that average Jane or Joe could somehow learn to permanently overcome this intricately fine-tuned system (or the societal drivers) with will power alone is almost laughable (hats off to the very few brave and determined individuals, who can actually do this – you have climbed to the top of Mount Everest and decided to camp out there for the foreseeable future – I wish you all the best!).
Thus, the authors are confident that,
“The identification of neuromolecular mechanisms that integrate short-term and long-term control of feeding behavior, such that calorie intake precisely matches energy expenditure over long time intervals, will almost certainly enable better preventive and therapeutic approaches to obesity.”
Sadly, despite all we have learnt about this system, we are still far from fully understanding it. Thus, the canonical molecular/ cellular signaling pathway: LEP → LEPR → POMC, AgRP → PC → MC4R is just one pathway in a complex network of multiple interacting and sometimes redundant pathways that involve virtually every part of the brain.
Also, the effect of environmental factors appears to be far more complex than most people think. Thus,
“During sensitive periods of development, ontogenic processes in both brain and peripheral organs can be modified so as to match anticipated environmental conditions. Although many exposures during development could potentially predispose to obesity in adulthood, we focus here on two that some researchers think contribute to the secular trends in obesity: parental obesity and exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).”
Throw in the role of gut bugs, infections, and societal factors, and it is easy to see why no simple solution to the obesity epidemic are in sight (let alone a range of effective long-term treatments like we have for most other common chronic diseases).
As for solutions,
“To be viable, theories of obesity pathogenesis must account not only for how excess body fat is acquired, but also for how excess body fat comes to be biologically defended. To date, the preponderance of research has focused on the former. However, we must consider the possibility that some (perhaps even most) mechanisms underlying weight gain are distinct from those responsible for the biological defense of excess fat mass. A key question, therefore, is how the energy homeostasis system comes to defend an elevated level of fat mass (analogous to the defense of elevated blood pressure in patients with hypertension). Answering this question requires an improved understanding of the neuro-molecular elements that underlie a “defended” level of body fat. What are the molecular/neuroanatomic predicates that help establish and defend a “set point” for adiposity? How do these elements regulate feeding behavior and/or energy expenditure, so as to achieve long-term energy balance? By what mechanisms is an apparently higher set point established and defended in individuals who are obese?” [sic]
“Given that recovery of lost weight (the normal, physiological response to weight loss irrespective of one’s starting weight) is the largest single obstacle to effective long-term weight loss, we cannot overstate the importance of a coherent understanding of obesity-associated alterations of the energy homeostasis system.”
There is much work to be done. Whether or not, in this climate of anti- and pseudo-science, funding for such fundamental work will actually be made available, is anyone’s guess.
That said, fructose has also been implicated in non-caloric metabolic effects including promoting insulin resistance and systemic inflammation.
Now a study by Jessica Kuzma and colleagues from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, specifically addresses the hypothesis that fructose-sweetened beverages can promote systemic inflammation.
For their study, they randomised 24 otherwise healthy participants to three 8 day periods during which participants consumed 4 daily servings of fructose-, glucose-, or HFCS-sweetened beverages accounting for 25% of estimated calorie requirements while consuming a standardized diet ad libitum.
During the study subjects consumed 116% of their estimated calorie requirement while drinking the beverages with no difference in total energy intake or body weight.
Neither fasting plasma concentrations of C-reactive protein or IL-6 changed during the study.
Furthermore, there were no consistent changes in measures of adipose tissue inflammation or in intestinal permeability.
Overall, the researchers conclude that consuming an excessive amount of fructose, HFCS, and glucose derived from SSBs consumed, at least in the short term (8 days), does not appear to promote systemic inflammation in otherwise healthy adults.
Obviously, this study does not address the issue of wether or not overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages can promote obesity or whether cutting out such beverages has any other advantages short of lowering caloric consumption.
However, there is also new data suggesting that altered immune function may well be an important causal step in the accumulation of excess fat and related metabolic abnormalities.
Two studies, both in animal models, point to a role of perforin, a cytotoxic effector molecule primarily released by CD8+ T cells and natural killer (NK) cells to eliminate infected or dangerous cells via the perforin-granzyme cell death pathway. In rare cases of humans with impaired perforin-dependent cytotoxic function, one often sees excessive T-cell activation, severe hyper-inflammation and possibly death.
The first study by Xavier Revelo and colleagues from the University of Toronto, published in Diabetes, perforin-deficient mice (Prf1null), which show early increased body weight and adiposity, glucose intolerance, and insulin resistance when placed on high-fat diet (HFD) were shown to have an increased accumulation of proinflammatory IFN-γ–producing CD4+ and CD8+ T cells and M1-polarized macrophages in visceral adipose tissue.
Furthermore, transfer of CD8+ T cells from Prf1null mice into CD8-deficient mice (CD8null) resulted in worsening of metabolic parameters compared with wild-type donors, thus demonstrating a role for T-cell function in insulin resistance associated with visceral adipose tissue.
In a second independent study by Yael Zlotnikov-Klionsky and colleagues from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, published in Immunity, showed that animals selectively lacking perforin-rich granules in their dendritic cells, progressively gained weight and exhibited features of metabolic syndrome, an effect that could be completely prevented by T cell depletion.
Both studies show that the immunoregulatory protein perforin appears to be an important regulator or body weight and metabolic function – a finding, which may well open a new door biological drivers of obesity.
Incidentally, perforin also plays a role in auto-immune diseases and this finding may thus provide a link between the common occurrence of obesity in people with auto-immune disease and has led some authors to even suggest that obesity itself may be a form of auto-immune disease.
While the therapeutic options will certainly not be as simple as replacing low levels of perforin, understanding exactly how immune function ties into the regulation of body weight may eventually lead to novel targets.
This year’s prestigious Fredrich Wassermann Award of the European Association for the Study of Obesity presented at the 22nd European Congress on Obesity goes to Helsinki’s Aila Rissanen, Europe’s grande dame of obesity research.
I have personally known Aila for as lo as I have been involved in obesity and there is much in her work and approach to obesity that has stimulated my own thoughts on this issue.
In her acceptance address, Aila chose to focus on her work in BMI-discordant twins (among the many topics she has worked on) due to the remarkable insights into the “natre-nurture” discussion that this model offers.
Indeed, it is extremely rare to find genetically identical twins, who differ in body weight (demonstarting just how highly heritable body weight actually is). Thus, body weight in identical twins is remarkably homogeneous not only because of the heritability of weight per se but also due to heritability of weight gain.
Cining the work of her wildly successful trainee Kirsi Pietilainen, Aila described the efforts it took to identify just 30 obesity discordant (weight difference of >10 Kg) identical twins from well over 500 identical twin pairs.
These discordant twin pairs have now been extensively phenotyped with every imaginable laboratory test, measurement and tissue biopsies.
The most consistent difference between the discordant twins appears to be a greater level of physical activity in the leaner twin, which appears to precede the onset of weight gain. In addition to voluntary physical exertion, there also appears to be a significant difference in fidgeting between the twins.
Compared to their co-twins, the obese twins had greater pro-inflammatory lipid profiles, lower antioxident activity and higher pro-coagulation markers. The reasons for these differences remains unclear.
Finally, Aila provided a brief overview of some of the exciting work that is now going on to further study the differences between these genetically identical but obesity disparate twins – metabolomics, lipidomics, epigenomics and even bacteriomics.
Although any of this has yet to translate to better obesity prevention or management, you never know where these fundamental insights into human biology may lead you.
For know, this is certainly a space I intend to watch.
Prague, Czech Republic
With all of the recent interest in the gut microbiota as a mediator of systemic inflammation and metabolic disease, it was only a matter of time before researchers would begin targeting pro-inflammatory pathways in the gut to change metabolism.
A proof-of-principle, that this is indeed possible, is presented by Helen Luck and colleagues from the University of Toronto in a paper published in Cell Metabolism.
Using mice models, the researchers not only show that a high-fat diet can alter the gut immune system but also that the chronic phenotypic pro-inflammatory shift in bowel lamina propria immune cell populations is reduced in genetically altered mice that lack beta7 integrin-deficient mice (Beta7null), a driver of gut inflammatory response.
Further more, treatment of high-fat-fed normal mice with the local gut anti-inflammatory agent 5-aminosalicyclic acid (5-ASA), reverses bowel inflammation and improves metabolic parameters including insulin resistance (although it had no effect on body weight).
These beneficial effects are are associated with reduced gut permeability and endotoxemia as well as decreased visceral adipose tissue inflammation.
Moreover, treatment with ASA also improved antigen-specific tolerance to luminal antigens.
Thus, as the authors conclude,
“…the mucosal immune system affects multiple pathways associated with systemic insulin resistance and represents a novel therapeutic target in this disease.”
Clearly gut inflammation both in relationship to gut microbiota as well as response to dietary factors is likely to be a hot topic in obesity and metabolic research for the foreseeable future.