Tuesday Thoughts: Obesity’s One-Two Punch

This week I went to a lecture hosted by the Center for Translational Neuroscience here at MU.   The speaker, James Sowers, MD, discussed obesity and its role in insulin resistance and cardiovascular (heart) disease.  Clearly, this talk was way out of my field, but I did learn some interesting things.

It’s common knowledge that obesity can lead to diabetes and heart disease; however, the mechanisms underlying this progression are not completely understood.

In his talk, Dr. Sowers presented data suggesting that a sedentary (think couch potato) lifestyle, as part of obesity, leads to changes in the body, especially in the heart and muscles. Over time, the body becomes resistant to insulin, a hormone that promotes the storage of certain compounds in body tissue.  When the body no longer responds to insulin, blood vessels stop working properly and heart disease may develop.  These insulin-related problems can develop even before the onset of diabetes.

Dr. Sowers also discussed another punch obesity can throw via over-nutrition, meaning eating too many foods with high fat and sugar content.  Over-nutrition is not only related to obesity, but also seems to directly influence the development of insulin resistance and heart disease.  Interestingly (or perhaps frighteningly) over-nutrition causes certain biological pathways to go into overdrive, causing the overproduction of cells.  In other words, the cascade of events over-nutrition initiates is very similar to that of cancer.  Let’s be clear, eating at McDonald’s five times a week isn’t going to give you cancer.  What might happen, though, are cancer-like processes that can lead to insulin-resistance, and, thus, heart disease.

Being told that obesity is bad and that it can lead to diabetes, which is also bad, is one thing.  But, now to be told that there are more direct links between obesity and heart disease, ones that are part of a cancer-like signaling pathway, is serious enough to make me listen.  Or, at least serious enough to make it easier for me to walk past the post-lecture cheesecake and cookie tray.