I've been puzzled by an interesting question lately. Why is it that certain cultures are able to eat large amounts of carbohydrate and remain healthy, while others suffer from overweight and disease? How do the pre-industrial Kuna and Kitavans maintain their insulin sensitivity while their bodies are being bombarded by an amount of carbohydrate that makes the average American look like a bowling ball?
I read a very interesting post on the Modern Forager yesterday that sent me on a nerd safari through the scientific literature. The paper that inspired the Modern Forager post is a review by Dr. Staffan Lindeberg. In it, he attempts to draw a link between compounds called lectins, found in grains (among other things), and resistance to the hormone leptin. Let's take a step back and go over some background.
One of the most-studied animal models of obesity is called the "Zucker" rat. This rat has a missense mutation in its leptin receptor gene, causing it to be nonfunctional. Leptin is a hormone that signals satiety, or fullness. It's secreted by fat tissue. The more fat tissue an animal has, the more leptin it secretes. Normally, this creates negative feedback that causes it to eat less when fat begins to accumulate, keeping its weight within a narrow range.
Zucker rats secrete leptin just fine, but they lack leptin receptors in their brain. Their blood leptin is high but their brain isn't listening. Thus, the signal to stop eating never gets through and they eat themselves to morbid obesity. Cardiovascular disease and diabetes follow shortly thereafter, unless you remove their visceral fat surgically.
The reason Zucker rats are so interesting is they faithfully reproduce so many features of the disease of civilization in humans. They become obese, hypometabolic, develop insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, dyslipidemia, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Basically, severe metabolic syndrome. So here's a rat that shows that leptin resistance can cause something that looks a whole heck of a lot like the disease of civilization in humans.
For this model to be relevant to us, we'd expect that humans with metabolic syndrome should be leptin-resistant. Well what do you know, administering leptin to obese people doesn't cause satiety like it does in thin people. Furthermore, elevated leptin predicts the onset of obesity and metabolic syndrome. It also predicts insulin resistance. Yes, you read that right, leptin resistance comes before insulin resistance.
Interestingly enough, the carbohydrate-loving Kitavans don't get elevated leptin like europeans do, and they don't become overweight, develop insulin dysfunction or the metabolic syndrome either. This all suggests that leptin may be the keystone in the whole disease process, but what accounts for the differences in leptin levels between populations?
I'll talk about a possible explanation in my next post.