Why Is It So Hard To Control Our Appetites? A Doctor’s Struggles With Giving Up Sugar

We’ve become convinced that if we can eat more healthily, we will be morally better people. But where does this idea come from? Near the end of the hellish first year of the coronavirus pandemic, I was possessed by the desire to eliminate sugar – all refined sugar – from my diet. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best time to add a new challenge to my life. My wife and I had been struggling to remote-school three young kids with no childcare. My elderly parents lived out of state and seemed to need a surprising number of reminders that pandemic restrictions were not lifted for Diwali parties or new Bollywood movie releases.

Like many people in those early days, we were looking around for masks and trying to make sense of shifting government guidelines about when to wear them. In addition, as a doctor, I was seeing patients in clinic at a time dominated by medical uncertainty, when personal protective equipment was scarce, and my hospital, facing staff shortages, was providing training videos and “how-to” tip sheets to specialists like me who hadn’t practised in an emergency room for years, in case we were needed as backup.

It would have been enough to focus on avoiding the virus and managing all this without putting more on my plate. But cutting processed sugar seemed like an opportunity to reassert some measure of order to the daily scrum, or at least to the body that entered the fray each day.

My former physique was behind me and the stress of clinical practice during the pandemic was taking its toll. Maybe it was all the pandemic death in the air, but I started feeling like I was what the narrator in Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things calls “Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age.” Maybe doing away with sugar could slow things down? More tantalisingly, maybe it could even take me back to a fresher time, the days in college when I had actually gone sugar-free for a while.

My friends offered condolences on what they called my soon-to-be joyless lifestyle. But I was set, compelled by literature about the deleterious, even toxin-like effects of added sugar. I had my doubts about being able to pull something like this off again, though, so I decided – as doctors often do – to tackle the problem by studying it.

That year, in what was arguably an act of masochism, I began the coursework required to sit for a medical-board exam on dietetics, metabolism and appetite. By earning another qualification, I thought, I would credential my way to realising my goal. After shifts at work, during breaks or once the kids were asleep, I would attend virtual lectures and pore over board-review books in a quest to understand the body’s metabolism.

I immersed myself in the physiology of exercise, the thermodynamics of nutrition, and the neuroendocrine regulation of appetite. But this knowledge didn’t break my pandemic eating habits. Cupcakes and ice cream and cookies didn’t call to me any less. And big food corporations were winning the bet that Lay’s potato chips first made back in the 1960s with its “Betcha can’t just eat one” ad campaign. So, I found myself reaching for Double Stuf Oreos while flipping through my medical textbooks and scarfing chocolate bars even as I correctly answered my practice-exam questions.

My body refused to be disciplined by my intellectual mastery of its operations. I passed the board examination, but my appetite for sugar didn’t change. I was left with more questions than I had when I started. Was sugar really a problem? Or had I internalised hangups about desire from the culture at large? Why did my soul feel so inexplicably sick – so unsatisfied – with the outcome of my first effort to quit that I tried it all again? And what does my “success” – I’ve been sugar-free for a year now – even mean?

I turned to Plato – a man occupied by appetite – for some answers. In his body map of the soul, the stomach was the dwelling place of desire. Reason, of course, resided in the head, while courage rested in the chest. In this tripartite architecture, it was up to reason – with the help of courage – to subjugate appetite and elevate the individual. The thinking went that if we could just rule our stomachs, we might be able to hold our heads up high and our chests out wide. For the Greeks, the right moral posture was key to the good life, or eudaimonia.

Early medical science in the west borrowed heavily from Plato, beginning with Aristotle, who practiced and taught medicine throughout his life. Aristotle agreed that eudaimonia could be realized by moderating the visceral and sensual appetites. He saw the heart as the vessel of intelligence, and arguably the most virtuous of organs. In his hypothesis, the heart occupied – physically and figuratively – a central place in the body, controlling other organs. The brain and lungs played supporting roles, merely cooling and cushioning the heart. The heart was, for Aristotle, where reason flowed.

Five hundred years later, the Greek anatomist and surgeon Galen challenged the centrality of the heart but still adhered closely to Plato’s triadic notion of the soul. Galen’s treatises, foundational to the development of modern medicine, are suffused with Platonic assumptions, and he painstakingly tried to stitch the divided parts of the soul – the rational, the spirited and the appetitive – on to specific organs in the human body.

In a striking display of topographical certitude, Galen writes in On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato: “I do claim to have proofs that the forms of the soul are more than one, that they are located in three different places … and further, that one of these parts [rational] is situated in the brain, one [spirited] in the heart, and one [appetitive] in the liver. These facts can be demonstrated scientifically.”

The Harvard classicist Mark Schiefsky writes that, in Galenic physiology, equilibrium is understood “as a balance of strength between the three parts; the best state is when reason is in charge, the spirited part is strong and obedient, and the appetitive part is weak”.

Should we be sceptical of this aspiration to tame appetite? Sigmund Freud doubted whether desire could ever be so readily controlled. In tossing Plato’s map aside, Freud erased the “soul” and instead sketched a three-part atlas of the “self” and its ratio of desires and repressions – endlessly fractured, negotiating between order (superego), consciousness (ego) and appetite (id). For Freud, appetites could not be overcome but only better managed. Perfect harmony and permanent equilibrium were nowhere in sight. Rather, in Freud’s idea of the self, anxiety for order loomed above the ego, with desire buried beneath it. Appetite was the subterranean tether that consciousness could never escape, but only sublimate.

There was something talismanic about my focus on sugar. So often, liberty is conceived of as the ability to say yes to things. To make affirmative choices: to open this door or that window. But there is also a flipside to that freedom: the power to say no. To refuse. Increasingly during the pandemic, I felt like I was powerless in the face of my cravings. If there was a knock at the door of appetite, a tap on the window of impulse, I had to answer it. And this felt shameful. Why couldn’t I say no? And why was realizing this so painful?

I don’t pretend to anything approaching total understanding of my motivations. But there were a few loosely detected currents worth illuminating here. For one thing, not being able to say no to sugar sometimes felt like a form of bondage to the demands of the body, the very body that I was eager to assert power over, particularly during a global health crisis that was damaging bodies everywhere.

If I couldn’t control this plague, could I not at the very least control myself? I wonder now if this insistence on regulating appetite was my sublimated response to the coronavirus’s immense death toll – a way of denying mortality in the midst of its excess. In this respect, perhaps there was not as much separating me from other kinds of pandemic deniers as I would like to believe. Were we all just coping with the inexorability of our decay – laid painfully bare by Covid-19 – in different ways?

Maybe. But there was something beyond the exigencies of the pandemic on my mind as well. The inability to resist sugar cravings – to break the habit – seemed like a victory of the past over the present. It felt like the triumph of the mere memory of pleasure over real satisfaction in the moment. Saying no to that memory – the neurological underpinning of craving – became important, because it felt like the only way to say yes to imagination. “I am free only to the extent that I can disengage myself,” the philosopher Simone Weil wrote.

Detachment from an indulgence, however small, felt like a way to stop being beholden to an old storehouse of desires (and aversions and beliefs). Developing the ability to refuse to reach for the cookie was also a way to break free from the impulse to reach for patterns of the past, from the compulsion of replicating yesterday at the expense of tomorrow. It’s the trick of habit to convince us that we are reaching forward, even as we are stepping back. Or, as the British scholar of asceticism Gavin Flood elegantly summarizes: “The less we are able to refuse, the more automated we become.”

If Freud dismantled the soul, modern medicine mechanized what he left of the self. But where Freud’s psychoanalytic theory allowed for a pinch of poetry, materialist models hold comparatively dry sway today. A look at the biomedical literature on appetite reveals a tortuous mix of neural circuits and endocrine pathways. What’s clear is that if there was a moral aspect of appetite for ancient philosophers and physicians, it’s not readily discernible in the language of contemporary scientific literature.

There are upsides to this development. In the modern era, medicine’s tradition-bound framing of appetite as a moral problem has been demoralizing for patients, who often felt – and still feel – objectified, policed and discriminated against by institutions that sermonize about it. The stigmatisation of appetite remains pervasive in the culture, in and out of medicine. The loss of at least an explicit moral charge in the scientific literature is a welcome shift.

In the century or so since Freud’s conjectures, appetite has been atomised by medicine into a problem of eating, or more specifically, of fighting the body’s tendency toward “disordered” eating. In the pursuit of better and longer lives, maladies of appetite – of eating too much, too little, or not the right kinds of food – have been studied and treated with varying degrees of success. The empirical study of digestion and appetite in the laboratory moved hunger from the moral arena into a biochemical one. Still, in both experimental physiology and clinical medicine, the ancient impulse to locate the appetite persisted: was it in the body or in the mind? Lines were drawn – and defended – between diseases of the stomach and diseases of the psyche.

What was at stake in the difference? Pinning down the appetite – claiming it belonged to the gut or the brain – was arguably the first in a series of steps leading to its regulation. Understood this way, medicine’s mission to uncover the mechanisms of appetite, despite the erasure of the soul from scientific databases, cannot escape Plato’s legacy. Whether we’re trying to improve or curtail appetite, we seem unable to resist the desire to control it.

It would have been different – I wouldn’t have felt the need to go all-or-nothing with sugar – if I could have simply walked away after a few bites. But increasingly during the pandemic, I wouldn’t stop even after I was full. What started off as pleasure would morph into painful excess. Sure, there’s pleasure in abundance, in overdoing a thing. But I found myself barrelling past that threshold.

While studying for the board exam in my first, failed attempt at going sugar-free, I was also using various apps and devices to keep track of my body. I had long used a smart watch to log my steps and workouts. I was also using a calorie-tracking app, studiously punching in numbers for every meal and scheming how much I could eat and still remain under the calorie limit. But all that logging and calculating felt joyless and anxiety-ridden. Sometimes, at a meal, in the middle of tallying up numbers like an accountant, I’d explain to impatient friends and family that “I’m just entering my data”. It was a lot of data.

I grew weary of all the inputting, and so I switched to an app with more of a behavioural focus. This app still had me tracking calories, but also came with recipes, a personal coach and “psychology-based” courses, as part of what the company calls your “journey”. The courses were a welcome shift from the myopic focus of calorie counting, and chatting with a coach added an opportunity to get some clarity about my goals.

The coach would share chipper motivational advice and provide tips to overcome obstacles. I diligently went through the app’s courses, answered its behavioural questions and followed its nudges. There were a few weeks where I was able to go sugar-free, but after a couple of months, the coaching advice seemed more and more generic, and the courses too simplistic when I was already spending so much time studying for my upcoming exam. I lost interest and reverted to simply recording calories.

I eventually passed that exam without much to show for it in terms of changes to my nutritional habits. I needed something different, a way to hold myself accountable and mean it. I stumbled upon another app that described itself as being “on a mission to disrupt diet culture and make our relationship with food, nutrition – and ourselves – healthier for good”. It promised live coaching calls with a certified nutritionist, shared recipes, and even offered to tailor my coaching with a vegetarian dietician. It did not ask you to track calories or enter food items from a database. All it wanted was for you to send pictures … of your food. It felt radically different than tapping numbers into a screen: someone else would see this.

The app’s slogan was “100% accountability and “0% judgment”. But, to be clear, it was the judgment that I came for. The simple fact that my nutritionist wouldn’t just know but also actually see what I was eating was the killer feature. I answered a questionnaire about my dietary habits and goals. I made it clear that I wanted to go sugar-free, and repeated as much to my nutritionist during a preliminary call.

She didn’t exactly endorse this goal, but rather acknowledged it as something that was important to me and gently marked it as a topic we would come back to, adding that she hoped I would get to the point where a more balanced approach would suffice. I told her we’d see. I made a promise to take a photo of every meal, good or bad. She kindly reminded me there are not “good” and “bad” foods, and we were on our way.

It’s been a year since I downloaded the app. Every day since then, I have taken a photo of every morsel of food I’ve eaten, whether it’s a handful of pistachios, a salad or a veggie burger. In every one of those pics, every day, I have been sugar-free. I’ve eaten more vegetables and greens and fruits than I’ve probably ever eaten in my life. My plates look balanced (I make sure of it). I take care to snap pictures that look nice for my nutritionist. Though she never judges me negatively, I look forward to the raising-hands emoji and approving words she sends if she sees a salad with asparagus and garlic balsamic drizzle and avocado up front.

Like an influencer on Instagram, I’ll take another shot if the lighting isn’t quite right, or if the framing is off. It’s been satisfying to upload a cache of sugar-free images, all beautifully arranged on the app’s user interface. Even more satisfying has been avoiding feeling like the guy who said he’d go sugar-free only to end up sending in pictures of donuts and cookies. Compared to calorie logs and food diaries, the prospect of someone else seeing photos of what I’m eating has made the potential pain of falling short feel more proximate than the pleasure of eating sweets. So I just stopped eating sugar. And it’s still working. Was this all it took?

Perhaps the persistent effort to control appetite, replicated across many cultures and times, reveals just how vigorously it resists that very control. The seemingly endless proliferation of constraints on appetite – from the disciplinary to the pharmacological – underscores its untamable quality. And yet the training of appetite – both as physiological fact and, more abstractly, as desire – can function as an ascetic practice. In this paradigm, as religion scholars such as Flood argue, the negation of desire amplifies the subjectivity of the individual.

Depriving the body paradoxically accentuates the conscious subject, because hunger unsatiated allows the pangs of the self to be felt more acutely, and renders being more vivid. In other words, appetite unfulfilled creates the conditions for expanding self-awareness. This is seen in the Bhagavad Gita in the figure of the ascetic, one who has renounced the pull of appetite and “attains extinction in the absolute” – in seeming contradiction, gaining infinity through loss.

If philosophy is after theoretical victories, science aims more concretely to hack, or at least short-circuit, a physiological truth. Take, for example, gastric bypass surgery, an operation that cuts the stomach into two parts (leaving one functional thumb-size pouch alongside a larger remnant) and radically reconstructs separate intestinal systems for each segment to restrict the amount of food that can be eaten. By shrinking the stomach to fool the mind into feeling satisfied with less, this surgery builds on growing recognition that the long-embraced brain-gut divide is far more porous than previously thought.

Recipients of the surgery generally do well in the short term, with reduced appetite, marked weight loss, better control of diabetes and improved health markers. But the percentage of patients who “fail” in the long-term after bariatric surgery (ie achieve less than half of excess weight loss) is reportedly as high as 35%. During that first post-op year, studies suggest, an influx of appetite-reducing intestinal hormones decreases patients’ urge to eat. Crucially, however, there are questions about the duration of those salutary hormonal changes and their effectiveness in controlling appetite as post-surgical days add up.

For a significant proportion of patients, even surgically shrinking the stomach – the historical seat of hunger – doesn’t offer complete freedom from unchecked appetite. This fact is not entirely surprising, given what is now known about the multiple neuroendocrine nodes that govern appetite, but it poses a conundrum for medical science: can appetite, as Freud asked in his own way, ever be fully controlled? And if not, is it a wonder that patients turn back to more personal strategies to pursue the work that prescriptions and sutures leave undone?

I can’t say I fully understand why teaming up with a nutritionist on an app worked so well, so fast. Would sharing pics of my food with friends and family in a group chat or a Facebook page have been as effective? Probably not. The issue seemed to be one of epistemology. My friends and family wouldn’t have been as suitable an audience, since they don’t just know me as I am, but also as I was. That knowledge of what’s bygone necessarily shapes the stories we can tell and believe about one another.

But with my nutritionist reviewing pictures of my meals from god knows what timezone, the app created an epistemological gap into which both of us could step. It was within this gap that my future self – the self I aspired to be, still unrealised and therefore unknown – could intercede in the present with slightly less inertia from the past. The app provided an illusion that daily life could not, offering a space for the dormant commitments of the future to come to fruition in the present. A space for imagination to overcome memory.

As my sugar-free streak extended, I began to wonder about the future of this illusion. Was it a rare example of tech living up to its glitteringly naive promise of liberation? Or was this an instance of the digital panopticon yet again determining our ability to imagine ourselves, revealing just how far-reaching its gaze is? And, more practically, I began thinking about how long I needed to keep eating this way. The cravings that had knocked so loudly at my door at the start of the pandemic now softly shuffled from leg to leg right outside it. I could still hear their shoes creaking at the threshold, but they couldn’t force their way in anymore. Things seemed quiet, maybe a little too quiet.

Whereas the Greeks soughtto regulate appetite in pursuit of the good life, perhaps what is sought after today is a facsimile of it: a corporatised eudaimonia-lite, where the goal isn’t virtue but efficiency; not equanimity, but productivity. In this view, it’s not a better way to live we’re seeking, just a less painful way to work and die – all while “looking good”. A more charitable and poetic possibility is that the constraint of appetite continues to appeal because it provides the same sense of structure to selfhood that metre does to a poem: a limit against which to construct narrative unity of the psyche.

As fascinating as it is to think about this question, even more essential ones – about the links between appetite, scarcity and loss – loom in the writings of Toni Morrison, a writer who provides a necessary counterbalance to the obsession with appetite restriction in societies glutted with luxury. In particular, I’m thinking of Beloved, which tells the story of human beings struggling for survival and wholeness in the face of slavery’s horrors. In portraying this struggle, Morrison uses the language of food and appetite to unfurl narratives saturated with the metaphysics of hunger: the difficulty of sating the self; the confusion between hunger, history and hurt.

I was struck by this unexpected resonance while rereading the book in the middle of my bid to quit sugar. Morrison’s characters think about what it would mean to satisfy what the narrator calls their “original hunger” – and whether doing so is even possible. They imagine getting to a place “beyond appetite”, but are also compelled by history to contemplate the price of doing so.

In my reading of the book, the denial of hunger risks becoming a costly exercise in self-abnegation – a severing of self from history, of self from self – whose consequences Plato doesn’t seem to fully consider, but which Morrison is deeply wary of. I think Morrison is, like Freud, skeptical of the metaphysicians who would have us render hunger subordinate. But where Freud is an anti-idealist, Morrison appears willing to reach for hunger, perilous though it may be. Straddling both the risk of self-destruction posed by contact with the original hunger, and the anguish of self-denial created by leaving it unrecognised, Morrison casts her faith in the human ability to embrace the beautiful, blood-hued predicament of incarnation.

About 10 months into my sugar-free life, a scent from the pantry hit me like it hadn’t for a while. My wife had just baked chocolate-chip cookies for our kids as a treat. By then, I was unfazed by sweets around the house. They might as well have been made of stone. But, at the end of a long day, I found myself unexpectedly at the pantry door. Minutes passed. After a while, I opened the plastic container and inhaled. My mouth began to water. I could almost taste the cookies.

I remembered the delightful way the chocolate melted at the back of the tongue. I remembered the satisfaction of soaking a warm cookie in milk. A part of my brain was humming, eager to replicate the memory of sugar, butter and dough on the cortex. Another part was already dreading the pain of not being able to stop. I picked up the cookie and, having built nearly a year’s worth of muscle memory, simultaneously opened the app on my phone. I centred the cookie in the glowing frame and was about to press send when, looking at the screen, it hit me: what would my nutritionist think?

As of this writing, my streak remains unbroken, despite a few close calls. In many ways the story seems to be going the way I intended: I am eating well balanced, sugar-free meals and haven’t counted a calorie in more than a year. The cravings that were troubling me aren’t gone, but the future version of me – the unsweetened aspirant – grows closer with each picture I snap. I feel the spiritual and physical acuity that comes with ascetic practice.

But I also feel some qualms about neglecting Morrison’s original hunger, with all its attendant risks and possibilities. I think about how I have sacrificed memory at the altar of imagination, recognising the chance that imagination ends up being overrated and memory proves to be the last storehouse of joy. But then I remind myself that visions like Morrison’s may be too large, too untimely for us to inhabit. They come from a place we haven’t arrived at. At least not yet.

By

Source: Why is it so hard to control our appetites? A doctor’s struggles with giving up sugar | Health & wellbeing | The Guardian

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What We Know About Why Some People Never Get Covid 19

Americans who haven’t had covid-19 are now officially in the minority. A study published this week from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 58% of randomly selected blood samples from adults contained antibodies indicating that they had previously been infected with the virus; among children, that rate was 75%.

What is different about that minority of people that hasn’t yet gotten infected? Stories abound of close calls, of situations where people are sure they could have (or should have) gotten sick, but somehow dodged infection. Not all the questions are answered yet, but the question of what distinguishes the never-covid cohort is a growing area of research even as the US moves “out of the full-blown” pandemic. Here are the possibilities that scientists are considering to explain why some people haven’t contracted the virus.

They behave differently

We’ve seen it play out time and time again—some people adhere more strictly to protocols known to reduce transmission of the virus, including wearing a mask and getting vaccinated. Some people avoid large public settings and may have even been doing so before the pandemic, says Nicholas Pullen, a biology professor at the University of Northern Colorado. Then again, that doesn’t tell the whole story; as Pullen himself notes: “Ironically, I happen to be one of those ‘never COVIDers’ and I teach in huge classrooms!”

They’ve trained their immune systems

The immune system, as any immunologist or allergist can tell you, is complicated. Though vaccination against covid-19 can make symptoms more mild for some people, it can prevent others from contracting the illness altogether.

Growing evidence suggests that there may be other ways that people are protected against the virus even without specific vaccines against it. Some could have previously been infected with other coronaviruses, which may allow their immune systems to remember and fight similarly shaped viruses. Another study suggests that strong defenses in the innate immune system, barriers and other processes that prevent pathogens from infecting a person’s body, may also prevent infection.

An innate immune system that’s already not functioning as well due to other medical conditions or lifestyle factors such as sleep or diet may put a person at higher risk of getting sick from a pathogen. There’s not single answer here yet, but initial studies are intriguing and may offer avenues for future treatments for covid-19 and other conditions.

They’re genetically different

In the past, studies have found interesting associations between certain genetic variants and people’s susceptibility to communicable diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and the flu. Naturally, researchers wondered if such a variant could exist for covid-19. One June 2021 study that was not peer reviewed found an association between a genetic variant and lower risk of contracting covid-19; another large-scale study, focused on couples in which one person got sick while the other didn’t, kicked off in Oct. 2021.

“My speculation is that something will be borne out there, because it has been well observed that resistance embedded in genetic variation is selected in pandemics,” Pullen says. But most experts suspect that even if they are able to identify such a variant with some certainty, it’s likely to be rare. For now, it’s best for those who haven’t gotten covid to assume they’re as susceptible as anyone else. Whatever the reasons some people haven’t yet gotten sick, the best defense remains staying up to date with vaccinations and avoiding contact with the virus.

Source: What we know about why some people never get covid-19 — Quartz

“Being exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t always result in infection, and we’ve been keen to understand why,” study author Rhia Kundu said in a statement, using the scientific name for the coronavirus. “We found that high levels of pre-existing T cells, created by the body when infected with other human coronaviruses like the common cold, can protect against COVID-19 infection.”

The study, which examined 52 people who lived with someone who contracted the coronavirus, found that those who didn’t get infected had significantly higher levels of T cells from previous common cold coronavirus infections. T cells are part of the immune system and believed to protect the body from infection. “Our study provides the clearest evidence to date that T cells induced by common cold coronaviruses play a protective role against SARS-CoV-2 infection,” study author Ajit Lalvani said in a statement.

Researchers cautioned that the findings should not be relied upon as a protection strategy. “While this is an important discovery, it is only one form of protection, and I would stress that no one should rely on this alone,” Kundu said. “Instead, the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is to be fully vaccinated, including getting your booster dose.” And the findings on the subject have been inconsistent, with other studies actually suggesting that previous infection with some coronaviruses have the opposite effect.

A major question that has come from the so-called ‘never COVID’ group is whether genetics plays a role in preventing infection. In fact, the question has spurred a team of international researchers to look for people who are genetically resistant to COVID-19 in the hopes that their findings could improve therapeutics. “What we are doing essentially is that we are testing the hypothesis that some people might not be able to get infected because of their genetic and inborn makeup, meaning that they might be genetically resistant to COVID,” says Spaan, who is a member of the COVID Human Genetic Effort.

The effort has sequenced genetic data from about 700 individuals so far, but enrollment is ongoing and researchers have received thousands of inquiries, according to Spaan. The study has several criteria, including laboratory test confirmation that the person has not had previous COVID-19 infection, intense exposure to the virus without access to personal protective equipment like masks and an unvaccinated status at the time of exposure, among others. So far, the group doesn’t know what the genetic difference could be – or if it even exists at all, though they believe it does.

“We do not know how frequent it is actually occurring,” Spaan says. “Is it like a super rare individual with a very, very rare mutation? Or is that something more common?” But the hypothesis is “embedded in human history,” according to Spaan. “COVID is not quite the first pandemic that we are dealing with,” Spaan says. “Humans have been exposed to viruses and other pathogens across time from the early beginning, and these infections have left an imprint on our genetic makeup.”

Those who haven’t gotten the coronavirus are “very much at risk,” says Murphy of Northwestern University. “I think every unvaccinated person is going to get it before this is over.” Experts stressed that research to determine why some people get COVID-19 while others don’t is still very much underway, and no one should rely on any of the hypotheses for protection. Instead, those who haven’t gotten the coronavirus should continue mitigation measures that have been proven to work, like vaccination and mask-wearing.

“You don’t ever want to have COVID,” Murphy says. “You just don’t know which people are going to get really sick from this and die or who’s going to get long COVID, which is hard to diagnose and difficult to treat and very real.” But with coronavirus cases on the rise and mitigation measures like mask mandates dropping left and right, it’s not an easy task.

COVID19: Face masks could return as cases spike Financial Mirror

06:48 Tue, 21 Jun
19:35 Mon, 20 Jun
21:11 Fri, 17 Jun
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A New Generation of Weight Loss Drugs Makes Bold Promises, But Who Really Wins

In the months after having her second child, Sarah found herself fed up. The 40-year-old Seattle resident was cutting carbs and sugar, and exercising regularly, but couldn’t seem to shed the pounds she had put on during pregnancy. So when an email newsletter mentioned a new weight-loss drug called Wegovy, Sarah decided to give it a try. Eight months later, she is out more than $10,000—and down more than 60 lbs.

“Wegovy made losing weight almost effortless,” Sarah, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told Quartz. “I’m not hungry often anymore and it doesn’t take any willpower to eat less. I simply don’t have any desire to overeat.”

Sarah is one of 125,000 US-based patients now taking Wegovy (whose generic name is semaglutide), a member of a new class of weight-loss drugs. These drugs work differently than the appetite suppressants popular among previous generations of dieters. They are also hitting the market at a different moment: one in which people are more eager than ever for realistic, science-based methods for addressing excess weight, even as a growing faction of activists and doctors voice skepticism of weight as an accurate measure of health.

A new class of weight-loss drug

In the mid-1990s, experiments on Gila monster venom found it contained hormones that could help lower blood sugar. That led to the diabetes drug Ozempic, which ultimately went on the market in 2018. People on that drug discovered a funny side effect: They lost weight.

In 2021, that same compound was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the name Wegovy for the express purpose of weight loss. Drugs like Wegovy work in more complex ways than simply suppressing appetite, and promise fewer (though not zero) side effects.

Like Wegovy, many of these drugs were originally approved for other conditions; liraglutide (brand name Saxenda for weight loss) was also originally approved as a diabetes drug (Victoza). In fact, semaglutide and liraglutide work similarly in the body: They’re known as GLP-1 receptor agonists because they activate receptors for the glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) hormone, reducing appetite by slowing digestion and the rate at which the body takes up glucose.

Perhaps most important, the new drug promise significant weight loss. “The previous weight loss drugs were just modestly effective,” says John Buse, an endocrinologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. The average patient would lose 5% of their body weight, in some cases up to 8%. But with semaglutide, he says, “we’ve gotten the kind of weight loss that makes people pay attention: 10-15% of body weight. That’s the average weight loss—half of people are losing more than that. It’s a gamechanger in the conversation…now that we have medicines for which a substantial proportion of patients can expect to lose 30 to 50 lbs.”

In one 68-week pre-approval clinical trial, patients on Wegovy did indeed lose 14.9% of their body weight on average, compared with 2.4% for people on a placebo. (Although, as several writers and scholars have pointed out, the study was funded by Novo Nordisk, which makes Wegovy.) Given the average weight of trial participants—100 kg, or 220 lbs.—that meant weight loss of about 15 kg, or 33 lbs. Other drugs in development have had similar results. In a recent trial for one called tirzepatide from Eli Lilly, more than half of patients lost at least 20% of their body weight—50 lbs. in many cases.

What it takes to lose weight

This new class of drugs is entering a market that at first glance seems ripe for breakthrough. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 42% of Americans—70 million people—meet the criteria for obesity (having a BMI of 30 or more). At one point or another, most of those people will try a diet and exercise regimen to lose weight.

But a growing body of research shows that diets are not an effective way to lose weight and keep it off. “Obesity is a complex disease… ​for most people, lifestyle modifications, diet, and exercise are just not enough,” says Katherine Saunders, a doctor at the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and co-founder of Intellihealth, an app-based platform that brings evidence-based obesity treatment to patients.

In part because of that complexity, bariatric surgery has since 2009 been considered the standard of care for patients looking to lose a substantial amount of weight. But these procedures can be invasive and expensive, and can come with significant and long-lasting complications.

The dearth of other options leaves some patients and doctors excited about this new generation of drugs. “Right now, the field is really looking for more efficacy, number one. People will do almost anything to lose weight,” says Buse. “We have more than just surgery now for promoting substantial weight loss. The most exciting thing is that obesity is on the ropes.”

A complicated picture

While hopes are high, the realities of taking these drugs can be more complicated for patients. There are often side effects—the most common for semaglutide and liraglutide are diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. On Wegovy, Sarah says she’s experienced diarrhea so severe that a few times she had to delay her next dose.

Physicians can sometimes gloss over or downplay those effects. But a visit to dedicated Reddit pages for these drugs shows whole communities of patients struggling to adhere to the regimen when they’re feeling sick, and seeking support from a community to understand whether what seems like a severe reaction is normal. (Novo Nordisk did not respond to a request for comment.)

How well a patient can tolerate a drug “is something we think about quite a lot,” Saunders says. “We always start with lower doses and increase gradually as tolerated. Everyone is different. We keep in close touch with the patient and monitor them closely.”

And while these new drugs are relatively well-studied, there are still unknowns. They seem to help patients keep weight off more reliably than diet and exercise alone, but those benefits fade after people stop taking the drugs, and patients do often regain weight. There are also questions about long-term effects. In 1997, weight loss drug fenfluramine/phentermine (fen-phen) was pulled off the market after it was found to cause heart problems. More recently, Belviq (lorcaserin), which the FDA approved for weight loss in 2012, was pulled from the US market in 2020 because long-term use was found to increase the incidence of various types of cancers.

Even if a patient does want to go on one of these drugs, she might not be able to. Many patients keen to try Wegovy can’t access it at the moment, due to a supply chain issue that its manufacturer doesn’t expect to resolve until later this year. Even then, most US health insurers, including Medicare, do not cover drugs like Wegovy, and paying out of pocket can cost thousands of dollars per month. After Sarah’s doctor told her she doesn’t prescribe Wegovy, Sarah secured a prescription through an online health provider; she pays for it out of pocket.

The lack of insurance coverage is in spite of the fact that the American Medical Association declared obesity to be a disease in 2013. “The conversation around insurance coverage needs to be had with insurance companies, but also with employers,” says Kimberly Gudzune, the medical director for the American Board of Obesity Medicine. “It needs to be seen as an investment in your workforce.” The Treat and Reduce Obesity Act, which would expand Medicare to include obesity treatments, has been introduced to US Congress every year since 2012, but has never passed.

America’s love/hate relationship with weight

Though excess body fat was once considered a sign of wealth or fertility, over the past century a stigma has developed against larger bodies. Today doctors associate excess weight with medical conditions like heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and depression. Studies also show that life is harder when you move through the world in a larger body. Fat people are less likely to be hired for a job, are paid less, are less likely to get married, and are less likely to be happy (though not if they’re living around other fat people). One 2006 study found that 46% of respondents would rather give up one year of life than be obese; 5% said they’d rather lose a limb.

The current state of research makes it impossible to unravel the full complexity of weight and health, but the conversation is starting to accommodate more nuance. Ubiquitous metrics such as body mass index are increasingly understood to be unreliable indicators (though doctors often still use them), and even the language around larger bodies is under review. Many physicians use “obese” to describe people who have excess weight or a BMI over 30, but activists are shying away from the word. “The reason…we are reluctant to use the words ‘overweight’ and ‘obesity’ is that they are made up, they can change,” says Tigress Osborn, a fat activist and chair of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

In fact, some research suggests that fat may have a protective effect on the body. “The body’s weight-regulating mechanism is about survival. It’s a system with more moving parts than we understand,” says Marilyn Wann, a fat activist and author of the book Fat!So? “Trying to remove weight from an individual or from the population is like trying to take a sledgehammer to the weather—we don’t know the unintended negative consequences we’re going to create.”

There are signs that in the future physicians may be more accepting of bodies of different sizes. But as weight loss drugs get more effective and more available, those cultural gains for body positivity (or body neutrality, or fat acceptance) may also be called into question.

A new relationship between doctors and patients

Overweight patients who come to see Shelly Crane might have an experience they’ve never had before. “I don’t initiate a weight-loss conversation with a patient,” says Crane, a family physician at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most weight-loss programs come with more risk of harm than good, she says, and there’s not enough evidence that people who do lose weight are healthier in the end.

Crane doesn’t regularly prescribe new drugs for weight loss, though she says more patients are coming in and asking for them lately. Instead, she prefers to keep conversations focused on goals of care. “Patients say, ‘I know I need to lose weight,’ and I say, ‘Why do you think you need to lose weight? What would change in your life if your weight was lower?’” That gives her an opening to talk about health more broadly—how is the patient’s sleep? Their diet? Their mobility? “I try to stay in my sphere of what I’m able to do as a family doctor and really address the root of the health issue as much as I can.”

Crane was drawn to this approach by listening to her patients talk about experiencing size discrimination, and by following the work of fat activists such as Ragen Chastain and Aubrey Gordon. Though she’s been trained in a more integrative style of medicine, her approach toward body acceptance was also shaped by her discovery of intuitive eating during medical school. Since then, she’s been working on deprogramming herself and her colleagues from anti-fat bias.

Crane is part of a burgeoning movement among doctors to improve the treatment of larger patients. For some, that means skipping the dreaded weigh-in, a practice that is somewhat controversial within medicine. Medical organizations like the Association of American Medical Colleges also offer guidelines to reduce anti-fat bias among clinicians.

For doctors, the updated approach at least engenders trust, which can in turn get patients to seek medical care more frequently and improve their overall health. At most, it broadens the definition of what “healthy” means, and looks like.

Some fat activists see this shift as an important step. “The thing we hear most often from the public is, ‘I thought I had this thing, but all the doctor wanted to talk to me about is weight loss, and now the thing is worse,’” Osborn says. “It’s progress to have people in the medical establishment recognizing that there are other healthcare concerns besides weight, if weight is a healthcare concern.”

The hope is that this evolution continues. Activists want more people, in the medical profession and outside of it, to respect their autonomy. That becomes even more pressing in a possible future filled with weight-loss drugs—a future where a person can simply take a drug and stop being fat. “The ease with which I could become smaller—why should I? That should be up to me. Just like, if you believe it’s a medical disorder, the treatment I choose should be up to me,” Osborn says. “Like with anything else, if you believe fat is a disorder, we should let people decide whether people will get treated or not.”

“Fatness isn’t a problem to be solved in and of itself. It is not the root cause of all ills, as much as [medicine] would like to think it is,” Crane says. “We can help people live full, rich lives when we focus on goals of care and not on weight.”

By Alexandra Ossola

Source: A new generation of weight loss drugs makes bold promises, but who really wins? — Quartz

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Healthy Lifestyle May Increase Life Expectancy, Research Suggests

A healthy lifestyle may allow older people to live longer, with women adding three years and men six to their life expectancy, suggests research published in the journal BMJ. In addition, more of those years may be dementia-free. More than 6 million Americans 65 and older have the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s, for which there is no cure.

The study found that, at age 65, women with the healthiest lifestyle had an average life expectancy of about 24 years, compared with 21 years for women whose lifestyle was deemed less healthy. Life expectancy for men with the healthiest lifestyle was 23 years, vs. 17 years for men who were less healthy.

The findings came from research that involved 2,449 people who were 65 and older and part of the Chicago Health and Aging Project, which first enrolled participants in 1993.

The current researchers developed a healthy lifestyle scoring system for their participants that encompassed five factors: diet, cognitive activity, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption. People were given one point for each area if they met healthy standards, yielding a final summed score of 0 to 5, with higher scores indicating a healthier lifestyle.

As for living with dementia, those with a score of 4 or 5 healthy factors at age 65 lived with Alzheimer’s for a smaller proportion of their remaining years than did those with a score of 0 or 1. For women, the difference for those with a healthier lifestyle was having Alzheimer’s for 11 percent of their final years vs. 19 percent for those with a less healthy lifestyle; for men, it was 6 percent of their remaining time vs. 12 percent.

The researchers concluded that “prolonged life expectancy owing to a healthy lifestyle is not accompanied by an increased number of years living with Alzheimer’s dementia” but rather by “a larger proportion of remaining years lived without Alzheimer’s dementia.”

People who engage in a healthy lifestyle, such as eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise, and avoiding smoking and excess alcohol consumption, incur many health benefits, including a longer lifespan.

It was not previously known if this benefit was also seen in people living with multiple conditions. Multimorbidity is the presence of two or more long-term conditions, ranging from anxiety and eczema to cancer and schizophrenia. It has become a major worldwide epidemic. People with multiple conditions have poorer health and a higher risk of death compared with others in the population.

Researchers compared the impact of a healthy lifestyle on life expectancy in people with and without multiple conditions. It was the first study to be able to look at the impact of different lifestyle factors.

The key finding is that a healthy lifestyle is equally important for everyone, whether they have multiple conditions or not. Age is a strong risk factor; even so, young and middle-aged adults who live in deprived areas are the most likely to have multiple conditions. Engaging in a healthy lifestyle could be more difficult for people in this group.

The study also found that certain lifestyle factors, such as smoking and physical activity, were more damaging than others. Public health policies and healthcare professionals could therefore focus on these lifestyle habits. This study suggests this approach would have more impact than costly strategies to address multiple risk factors.

By Linda Searing

Source: Healthy lifestyle may increase life expectancy, research suggests – The Washington Post

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Restricting Calories Leads To Weight Loss, Not Necessarily The Window of Time You Eat Them In

1

Results of a new weight loss study were published this week, leading to headlines proclaiming intermittent fasting “isn’t a magic diet trick after all”.The researchers aimed to test whether adding a restriction on what time of day you were allowed to eat (or not) to the usual low calorie (or kilojoule) diet led to greater weight loss compared to just following a low calorie diet. They recruited 139 adults whose average weight was 88 kilograms and age 32 years.

The participants were randomised to follow either the low calorie diet that had reduced their usual daily energy intake by 25%, or the same low calorie diet with the addition of a time period during which they were allowed to eat in an eight-hour window between 8am and 4pm each day.This approach is called “time-restricted eating” or a “16-hour intermittent fast”. Both groups received support from health coaches to follow their diets for 12 months.

Results showed that after one year, people in both groups lost 7-10% of their baseline body weight. While the low calorie group lost an average of 6.3 kilograms, the low calorie plus time restricted eating group lost 8 kilograms. Although there was a 1.8 kilogram difference between the groups, it was not a statistically significant difference.

Participants in both groups also had better blood sugar and blood fat levels and improved insulin sensitivity, but again there was no significant differences between groups.

1. It wasn’t based in the US

Most intermittent fasting studies have been conducted in the United States. This trial was done in China and recruited people in Guangzhou, so it provides important data using a culturally sensitive, prescribed calorie restriction over 12 months.

2. It showed small extra time restrictions on eating don’t make much difference

In their normal lives, the participants in Guangzhou had a usual window for daily eating of about 10.5 hours. Studies in other populations, particularly the US, show about 90% of adults have an eating window of 12 hours, with only 10% of adults having an overnight fasting period greater than 12 hours.

For more than 50% of people in countries like the US, the overnight fast is less than nine hours, meaning they eat over a 15 hour time period each day. So in the current study, the time restriction on eating was only minor – at about two hours less per day than what’s usual for people in China. This would not have been too big a difference from usual.

The researchers also reported that in China, the biggest meal is usually eaten in the middle of the day, so that was not influenced by the time restriction. In countries where the evening meal is the biggest or people snack all evening, then time restriction may still be a beneficial way to reduce intake.

A 2020 review of 19 studies that used time-restricted intermittent fasting found it was an effective treatment for adults with obesity, leading to greater loss of body weight and body fat, with significantly lower systolic blood pressure and blood glucose.

3. It showed support is imperative

Both groups in this trial were given a lot of support to adhere to the kilojoule-restricted diet. They were provided with one meal replacement shake per day for the first six months, to make it easier to follow the kilojoule restriction and help improve adherence to the diet.

They also received dietary counselling from trained health coaches for the 12 months of the trial. They received dietary information booklets that included advice on portion size and sample menus. They were encouraged to weigh foods to improve their accuracy in reporting kilojoule intakes and were required to keep a daily log with photographs of foods eaten and the time, using the study app.

They also received follow-up calls or app messages twice a week and met with the health coach individually every two weeks for the first six months. In the second six months, they continued to fill out their dietary records for three days per week and received weekly follow-up telephone calls and app messages and met with a health coach monthly. They also attended monthly health-education sessions.

This was a lot of support and is very important. Receiving long-term support to achieve health behaviour changes typically achieves a weight loss of 3–5% of body weight, which significantly lowers risk of weight-related health conditions, including a 50% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes over eight years.

4. Even with good adherence, individual weight loss varies

Individual weight loss responses were very variable, even though adherence was high in this trial.

About 84% of participants adhered to the prescribed daily calorie targets and time restricted eating period. Weight loss at 12 months varied from 7.8 to 4.7 kilograms in the low calorie only group, and 9.6 to 6.4 kilograms in the low calorie plus time-restricted eating group.

As we have seen many times previously, this study confirms there is no one best diet for weight loss. It also shows small decreases in the window of time you’re eating probably won’t make a difference to weight loss.

By:

Laureate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Newcastle

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