I discovered a new term last week: overnutrition. It means what it sounds like it means: consuming more nutrients than you need for normal metabolism. The health significance is that overnutrition is a kind of malnutrition: an overload of nutrients causing a health problem. It did not surprise me to find that the concept has been enlisted (and for all I know invented) in the valiant, misbegotten fight against the alleged obesity epidemic.
I encountered “overnutrition” in the scientific journal Cell in an article that, according to the press release from the researchers’ university, had identified the “brain pathway responsible for obesity.” That headline, of course, was hyperbolic and a good example of scientific public relations intended to promote the virtues of the sponsoring institution. That this kind of PR is effective is demonstrated by the media response to the news, which dutifully reported how the hormonal mechanism the researchers studied in mice under astonishingly artificial circumstances not only showed how the inflammatory response associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes is caused by overnutrition but also how overnutrition becomes a perpetual motion machine by disrupting the biochemistry of immunity and of energy metabolism.
The scene of the crime is the hypothalamus. This small organ at the base of the brain is central to energy metabolism, immunity, and the stress response. What the researchers found was that when they injected mice with an overload of glucose, the cells of the hypothalamus experienced a specific kind of stress and overproduced two stress chemicals that in turn caused the release of two biochemicals that are part of energy metabolism and that are usually held in check. Those two biochemicals cause insulin resistance and leptin resistance that in turn cause stress to the hypothalamus, so that the original stress chemicals kicked off by overnutrition continue to be produced in a perpetual motion machine.
There’s a slight of hand here that plays to our conditioning. When you hear “overnutrition” you no doubt think “overeating.” So with this news, you along with people of considerable scientific sophistication have understood that the real discovery here is that overeating begets overeating that makes people fat. In fact, what it tells us is that malnutrition begets malnutrition that makes people ill.
In my opinion, weight gain as a disease and as a prime mover in causing other diseases demonstrates that the road between science and culture runs both ways—remember that homosexuality was until recently considered a disease by psychiatric science. The health problem is malnutrition, not weight gain.
This is clear from the research article itself. Malnutrition kicks things off, but then shifts into a vicious cycle in which malnutrition is a consequence. This should cause any sensible person to ask: what caused the malnutrition in the first place?
The answer is too much of some nutrients and too little of others. We can try to stay in the cultural and scientific comfort zone of individual action and responsibility by noting that comfort foods, high in caloric macronutrients and depleted of essential vitamins and other micronutrients, play a palliative physiological role in response to stress. But fundamentally, the causes of stress are not the consequence of individual choice. They are the consequence of environmental stressors, social and physical.
This takes us down a road that few in either cultural or scientific leadership really want to go: the sources of stress. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that malnutrition in the entire population is not due to gluttony or some other sin nor does it come from irresponsible food choices. It’s a consequence of a food infrastructure that is about selling product, not nourishing bodies; a food infrastructure that is but one expression of social inequity and one source of toxins in addition to being stocked with malnourishing substances that are more fuel than food.