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Pediatr Ann. 2006 Dec;35(12):898-902, 905-7.

The 'skinny' on childhood obesity: how our western environment starves kids' brains.

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  • 1Division of Endocrinology, University of California at San Francisco Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Ttreatment, 94143-0434, USA.


In this review, the mechanism of our "toxic environment's" effects on insulin and weight gain in the genesis of obesity is elaborated. The composition of our diet is highly insulinogenic. The insulin drives energy into fat, and interferes with leptin signaling in the VMH. This results in weight gain and the sense of starvation, which results in decreased SNS activity, reducing energy expenditure and physical activity; and increased vagal activity, which promotes yet further insulin release and energy storage. Thus, hyperinsulinemia turns the leptin negative feedback system into a "vicious cycle" of obesity (see Figure 3, page 905). Externally, this appears as "gluttony and sloth" but it is biochemically driven. How does this work? A thin, insulin-sensitive, 13-year-old boy might consume a daily allotment of 2,000 kcal, and burn 2,000 kcal daily (or 50 kcal/kg fat-free mass) in order to remain weight-stable, with a stable leptin level. However, if that same 13-year-old became hyperinsulinemic and/or insulin resistant, perhaps as many as 250 kcal of the daily allotment would be shunted to storage in adipose tissue, promoting a persistent obligate weight gain. Due to the obligate energy storage, he now only has 1,750 kcal per day to burn. The hyperinsulinemia also results in a lower level of leptin signal transduction, conveying a CNS signal of energy insufficiency. The remaining calories available are lower than his energy expenditure; the CNS would sense starvation. Through decreased SNS tone, he would reduce his physical activity, resulting in decreased quality of life; and through increased vagal tone, he would increase caloric intake and insulin secretion, but now at a much higher level. Thus, the vicious cycle of gluttony, sloth, and obesity is promulgated. Is this personal responsibility, when a kid's brain thinks it's starving? Is it personal responsibility when the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends juice for toddlers? Is it personal responsibility when the Women, Infant and Children program subsidizes fruit juice but not fruit? Is it personal responsibility when the first ingredient in the barbecue sauce is high-fructose corn syrup? Is it personal responsibility when high-fiber fresh produce is unavailable in poor neighborhoods? Is it personal responsibility when the local fast food restaurant is the only neighborhood venue that is clean and air-conditioned? Is it personal responsibility when in order to meet the criteria for No Child Left Behind, the school does away with physical education class? Is it personal responsibility when children are not allowed out of the house to play for fear of crime? We must get the insulin down. Fixing the "toxic environment" by altering the food supply and promoting physical activity for all children can't be done by government, and won't be done by Big Food. This will require a grassroots, bottom-up effort on the part of parents and community leaders. We as pediatricians must lead the way.

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