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Fructose sugar puts the body in low-power mode, fueling obesity

While Western diets are undoubtedly linked with an increased risk of obesity, health experts have long debated over what exactly is driving the surge in weight issues. Is it the excessive calories, carbohydrates, or fat in these foods? 

A new study led by Dr. Richard Johnson of CU Anschutz offers a unique perspective that converges these varying theories around one central figure: fructose.

The role of fructose 

The paper brings forward a compelling argument that resonates with multiple theories. According to the researchers, the key issue driving obesity is fructose. This sugar is found in table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and is also produced within our body from carbohydrates like glucose.

The science behind the study is simple. As the body breaks down fructose, it depletes the active energy, referred to as ATP (adenosine triphosphate). This reduced energy level triggers hunger and increased food consumption.

The fructose survival hypothesis

The “fructose survival hypothesis” introduced by Dr. Johnson integrates the energy balance theory, which implies that excessive food intake, especially fat, is the root cause of obesity. At the same time, the new hypothesis acknowledges the carbohydrate-insulin model that prioritizes carbs as the main trigger for weight gain.

“Essentially, these theories, which put a litany of metabolic and dietary drivers at the center of the obesity epidemic, are all pieces of a puzzle unified by one last piece: fructose,” said Dr. Johnson. “Fructose is what triggers our metabolism to go into low power mode and lose our control of appetite, but fatty foods become the major source of calories that drive weight gain.”

Hibernating animals

Dr. Johnson said we can look to hibernating animals as an example: when we’re hungry and low on active energy, we go into survival mode. Just as bears consume high-fructose fruits to prepare for winter hibernation, humans’ energy levels dip when consuming fructose-rich foods. 

Even though fat is a reservoir of stored energy, high-fructose foods prevent the utilization of this stored energy, leading to a state that is comparable to a bear gearing up for winter.

Reimagining obesity

The most radical insight this theory presents is the conceptualization of obesity. “This theory views obesity as a low-energy state,” said Dr. Johnson. “Identifying fructose as the conduit that redirects active energy replacement to fat storage shows that fructose is what drives energy imbalance, which unites theories.”

While this research offers a new direction for addressing obesity, further research is needed to conclusively confirm the findings and to identify more targeted preventions. 

The study is published in the journal Obesity

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