I had a different post planned for today, but then I had an awesome guest lecture this morning in my Nutrition and Chronic Disease class by Mario Kratz, PhD, who is technically on the Nutritional Sciences faculty but spends most of his time over at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center doing really cool research.

He talked mostly about obesity and its link to many chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Specifically, he talked about how chronic, low-grade inflammation of adipose (fat) tissue might be the mechanism that links obesity to chronic disease. It’s complicated, and I’m not going to go into details, but I’ll highlight a few points he made that made me think, “Yeah!”

  1. “Nutrition is much, much more powerful than we currently give it credit for.”
  2. Even though there is a strong association between obesity and some chronic disease (like, the risk of type 2 diabetes increases strongly with increasing body mass index), that does not mean that obesity causes these diseases. There could be some third variable that’s causing both the obesity and the chronic disease…a variable like diet, perhaps!

Seriously…the association between obesity and type 2 diabetes is really, really strong. Nevertheless, some lean people get type 2 diabetes, and Dr. Kratz had one study subject who had a body mass index (BMI) of 71 (!) and that person did not have diabetes. Could it be that most eating patterns that lead to obesity are also devoid in micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, etc.) and fiber, which could cause the inflammation in the adipose tissue that makes the body unable to regulate blood sugar and insulin? Fascinating!

He suggested that focusing too much on the macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, protein) may be oversimplifying what’s important about how we eat. He said that research studies that compare high-fat/low-carb diets (like Atkins) and high-carb/low-fat diets (like Ornish) only look at the effects of the amount of fat and the amount of carbs, but that there is much more involved. The Ornish diet, for example, is going to include a lot of vegetables, which are packed with fiber and nutrients that play important roles in our bodies.

He also put it this way: A huge vegetable salad doesn’t contribute much in the way of fat or carbohydrates, but it can contribute a lot in terms of nutrients. Add a slice or two of whole-grain bread to that salad, and suddenly you have a “high-carb” meal. Take away the bread, add some nuts and seeds to the salad, and suddenly you have a “high-fat” meal.” So, what does high-carb or high-fat really mean in that context? Again, it becomes a massive oversimplification.

His parting words (before asking if we had any questions): “Our bodies are very complex, and our foods are very complex.”