America’s Starving Obese

bruce-ames.jpgRead this profile of Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames — an admirably stubborn and brilliant researcher focused on cancer and aging, who made enemies among the environmental community for pooh-poohing their fears about pesticide exposure.  

Ames’ focus now is on obesity and malnutrition — and the millions of American who suffer from both maladies at the same time.

Here’s a long excerpt from a much, much longer piece.  It ran in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle.  The whole piece, written by Leah Messinger, is worth your time.

Recently, Ames overheard a colleague mention 60 cases of rickets at nearby Children’s Hospital Oakland. The disease, which is caused by vitamin D or calcium deficiency and had essentially been eliminated in the United States, is still common in countries with an unpredictable food supply. How, Ames wondered, could ailments such as rickets, which have historically been associated with malnutrition occur in a population that grows increasingly plump?

Could it be, he asked, that a society gorging on empty calories is simultaneously starving itself of the vitamins and minerals needed to keep its internal gears churning? Or that children who once played outdoors in the sunshine required to make vitamin D in the skin now stay indoors, hypnotized into inactivity by their TV screens? For years obesity was a sign of wealth; people with limited cash went hungry. But as cheap, highly processed foods have taken root in our supermarkets, narrowing the shelf space for fruits and vegetables, obesity is more frequently associated with poverty.

Ames continues to assemble evidence that a dearth of micronutrients can damage DNA. “We’ve been taking human cells in tissue culture, and they go through a certain number of generations and then they senesce,” he explains, adding that when the cells are deficient in a certain micronutrient, they senesce, or age, prematurely. “We still have to prove it in people and at what level, but so far for every vitamin and mineral deficiency we’ve looked at they senesce early and we see a lot of DNA damage.”

A properly functioning body requires healthy mitochondria, the “power plants” of nearly every human cell. Vitamins and minerals fuel the mitochondria, which in turn burn fats, carbohydrates, and protein in food to form energy for the rest of the body. With age, mitochondria degrade and lose efficiency. Oxygen radicals, atoms with unpaired electrons that are also called “free radicals,” result from that inefficiency and bind with other molecules to interfere with normal cell operations.

Inadequate micronutrient intake, Ames believes, affects the mitochondria in much the same way as aging. He has proved in tissue cultures that micronutrient deficiencies can degrade DNA, leading to the production of mutated chromosomes that can cause cancer. Over the short term, nature appears to be kind to the mildly micronutrient deficient human body. But chromosome disintegration will result in dire long-term health consequences, Ames says. In the absence of enough nutrients, he postures, “What nature would want is for the animal to survive, but anything long term will be ruthlessly dispensed with. So it’s a triage system. And I think DNA damage is long term. It shows up as cancer 30 years later.”

A college roommate of mine was one of Ames’ acolytes, and although I was a mere English major and then a journalism graduate student, I learned quite a bit from Ames through secondary osmosis.  This is a new direction for him.  In the absence of good farmer’s markets and a culture that worships poor eating habits, Ames says in this story that the fastest, cheapest and most effective solution might be widespread distribution of vitamin pills that could provide the ingredients missing from the typical American diet.

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