Just because our diet doesn’t cause weight gain does not mean it’s OK

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Because many of us are very weight-conscious, it’s natural to judge the impact of our diet almost entirely on how it registers on the scales. This commonly manifests as someone who eats a not-so-good diet (and knowing that is the case) believing that they are ‘getting away with it’ as long as they are not putting on weight. However, our body weight does not always accurately reflect our health and what might be going on deeper within the body.

To begin with, our weight tells us nothing about our body’s composition, nor where any additional fat is accumulated. This is important because over the years we may lose muscle and gain fat but see little change in the scales. However, this change in body composition may reflect declining health, and that’s particularly the case if that additional fat is packing itself in and around the abdominal organs (so-called ‘visceral’ fat).

Visceral fat is generally strongly associated with a heightened risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. While its presence is not easily detected, enhanced risk of chronic disease is associated with the presence of other disease markers including raised levels of blood fats known as triglycerides, raised blood pressure, higher numbers of a form of cholesterol known as ‘small, dense LDL’, raised blood sugar levels, and increased inflammation.

It’s entirely possible for someone to be a ‘healthy’ weight, and have biochemical and physiological evidence of enhanced risk of disease. By the same token, by the way, it’s also possible to be ‘overweight’ or even ‘obese’ according to conventional measures and have disease marker scores I’d be happy to have as my own.

I was thinking about all this as I was reading this report about a study presented recently at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Florida, USA. From what I can make out, the researchers looked at the relationship between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (including tea, coffee and soft drinks) and risk factors for heart disease over a 5-year period. Women drinking 2 or more sugar-sweetened beverages each day, compared to women drinking less than this, were more likely to develop raised levels of triglycerides. It also seems they were more likely to put weight on around their middles (a proxy sign of visceral fat). These changes occurred even if the women did not put on weight overall.

This is just an epidemiological study looking at associations between things and we can draw no conclusions from it regarding the impact sugar has on health. However, it supports the idea that sugar in the diet might influence risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It also helps remind us that that just because our diet is not causing us to gain weight, that does not mean we are immune from damaging effects that are less obvious and deeper within the body.

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