Is Obesity Caused By Impaired Mitochondrial Function?

Looking for a definitive obesity cause and wondering why many people suffer from this condition? To find out more about the root cause of obesity, we will study a different angle on why it occurs in the first place.

RELATED: The Health Impacts Of Obesity On Older Women 

In this article:

  1. Obesity Is One of the Risk Factors for Premature Mortality Based on a Study
  2. What Is Obesity?
  3. What Are the Common Causes of Obesity?
  4. Mitochondria: Turning on the Cellular Powerhouse
  5. Is Obesity Caused by Impaired Mitochondrial Function?
  6. The Battle of Fatty Acid Oxidation
  7. How Mitochondrial Biogenesis Can Help Fight The Battle of the Bulge
  8. How to Grow New Mitochondria

Obesity Cause: Impaired Mitochondrial Function

Obesity Is One of the Risk Factors for Premature Mortality Based on a Study

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In last month’s Juvenon Health Journal, we discussed a recent study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health that identified the top preventable risk factors for premature mortality. Smoking tops Harvard’s list of preventable risk factors, with high blood pressure and obesity closely following.

The Harvard study revealed that obesity accounts for about 216,000 premature deaths in America each year. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report just over a third of U.S. adults are obese and forecast that by 2030, this may grow to 42%.

What’s more, Duke University researchers concluded that the already obese are getting fatter. If the trend continues, severe obesity will double by 2030, when 11% of adults will be nearly 100 pounds overweight or more.

Equally troubling is the fact that being overweight increases one’s health risks of diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and many other ailments. According to CDC studies, obesity-related problems account for at least 9% of the nation’s yearly health spending, or $150 billion a year.

Indeed, these are sobering statistics, and a multimillion industry has been based upon obesity and its causes and cures.

What Is Obesity?

Before we go deeper into understanding what the real obesity cause is, let’s talk more about the condition.

Basically, obesity is a condition that happens when a person has excess fat that can negatively affect one’s health. Doctors distinguish obesity by identifying your body mass index (BMI), which is a tool to determine if you have the right weight for your height, sex, and age.

What Are the Common Causes of Obesity?

Although we are going to take a look at different possible obesity causes, it’s still important to discuss the common reasons why this health condition occurs.

1. Too Much Sugar

Added sugar in many commercially-made foods is one of the common major causes of weight gain. This is because excess sugar intake can alter the biochemistry and hormones of your body, leading to weight gain.

Fructose and glucose compose sugar, and too much fructose can cause stress to your liver as it is the only organ in the body that can metabolize it. With high amounts of fructose, your liver gets overwhelmed, which then starts converting fructose into fat. This results in weight gain and obesity.

2. Food Availability

One obesity cause that influences waistline sizes significantly is food availability. Junk foods and highly-processed foods, for example, are everywhere, and this tempts people to buy them due to their convenience and affordability.

These types of foods contain high amounts of sugar and excess calories that can easily contribute to weight gain.

3. Leptin Resistance

Many obese people have leptin levels that are not working properly, and this is why leptin resistance occurs.
Leptin is a hormone that plays an essential role in obesity. Fat cells produce this hormone, and with higher fat mass, its blood vessels increase.

This is why leptin levels are high in people with excess fat. When there is a normal level of leptin, like in healthy people, it tells your brain how you should store and process body fat.

4. Food Addiction

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Addiction to anything, including food, is difficult to manage without proper support. This obesity cause allows people to lose control over their eating patterns and food behavior, making them crave for more food, which can lead to weight gain.

Those who are addicted to eating highly-processed foods are the ones prone to becoming obese, primarily because of the high calorie content.

5. Genetics

Your genes can also be an obesity cause. Children of obese parents have a high risk of becoming obese than kids of lean parents.

But, this does not mean that 100% of children with obese parents will eventually become obese. Obese children are the result of unhealthy eating and their eating behavior.

Overweight children may also have eating disorders, which requires medical attention.

Mitochondria: Turning on the Cellular Powerhouse

“When the mitochondria are not functioning properly, the food and oxygen can’t be used properly.”

Researchers are now exploring the notion that some clues to obesity may be found at the cellular level, in the mitochondria. But, before we get into the nitty-gritty of the research, let’s review the role or function of mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell.

The mitochondria are located throughout the body. Like a furnace uses fuel and oxygen to generate heat, nutrients and oxygen enter the mitochondria where energy is generated.

Approximately 95% of the energy needed by muscles and organs is generated locally by the mitochondria. But, when mitochondria are not functioning properly, food and oxygen can’t be used properly, and virtually, all of your bodily systems are compromised.

RELATED: Sugar High: The Low-Down On The Health Dangers

Is Obesity Caused by Impaired Mitochondrial Function?

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A growing body of research is demonstrating that altered mitochondrial energy production, particularly in skeletal muscles, is a major anomaly capable of setting off a chain of metabolic events leading to obesity.

The fact that mitochondrial defects can be accumulated over time and as a normal part of aging explains why a person can eat all sorts of foods and remain a normal weight or achieve long-term weight loss while he or she is young. But, when middle-age approaches, as often as not, so will the middle-age spread.

When a meal of fats and carbohydrates is eaten, both substances are broken down and absorbed by the cells. Although both macronutrients are available to be converted into energy, when carbohydrate is present, the mitochondria will favor the carbohydrate.

When free fatty acids are present, but carbohydrates are in short supply, the mitochondria will normally switch over to using fatty acids for fuel. This is called metabolic flexibility.

Evidence supports that obese individuals have a depressed ability to oxidize free fatty acids for use as energy in the skeletal muscle. It further appears that defects in the mitochondria of skeletal muscle are responsible for this impaired lipid oxidation, which causes the person to store body fat for fuel instead of burning it.

The Battle of Fatty Acid Oxidation

There are several possible reasons why obese people may have a harder time oxidizing fatty acids than they should:

  1. They have fewer mitochondria.
  2. They have smaller mitochondria.
  3. Their mitochondria have structural problems that are visible by electron microscopy, and some of their mitochondria may even have degenerated completely.
  4. Their mitochondria have reduced oxidative activity.

Mitochondrial dysfunction may be a plausible explanation for some forms of obesity. If mitochondria fail to oxidize fatty acids, both ingested and de-novo synthesized fatty acids will be preferentially routed to and will tend to remain in storage.

Studies show that weight loss by itself does not improve fatty acid oxidation in mitochondria, and this explains why it is so easy to regain weight on a diet that is fairly high in carbohydrates.

How Mitochondrial Biogenesis Can Help Fight The Battle of the Bulge

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“The primary molecule in the body that stimulates growth of mitochondria is now believed to be PGC-1alpha.”

Improving mitochondria through regeneration (mitochondrial biogenesis) might be a way to permanently avoid or reverse obesity. Recent technological advances like genetic microarray chips and sophisticated microscopes have allowed researchers to identify the molecules in the body that support growth/regeneration of healthy mitochondria.

The primary molecule in the body that stimulates the growth of mitochondria and is activated by exercise is now believed to be PGC-1alpha, also called “the exercise molecule.”

Transient scarcity of cellular energy is a “triggering stressor” that induces the growth of new healthy mitochondria through the PGC-1alpha pathway. Exercise or physical activity creates a short-term energy shortage that triggers mitochondrial renewal.

Temporary fasting or caloric restriction also triggers mitochondrial renewal. A low carbohydrate diet, which removes the “easy calories” from the diet, is also a “stressor” that triggers mitochondrial renewal.

In contrast, easy living with limited exercise and excess number of calories, especially carbohydrates, discourages mitochondrial renewal. The exercise molecule PGC-1alpha activates the growth of new mitochondria, so even older people can have youthfulness – strong muscles, endurance, brain power, and memory – and obese adults can have the fat metabolism they had when they were younger.

How to Grow New Mitochondria

  1. Regular exercise stimulates PGC-1alpha and the growth of new healthy mitochondria over time.
  2. Transient caloric restriction may also stimulate PGC-1alpha and the generation of new healthy mitochondria over time.
  3. Low carbohydrate diets have been shown to stimulate PGC-1alpha and thus, mitochondrial growth.
  4. It is also possible to supplement with nutrients that activate and elevate PGC-1alpha to promote mitochondrial growth of new mitochondria and to help recharge mitochondria and activity.

Once the mitochondria are somewhat restored, it is important to take advantage of their renewed state to reduce excess fat. Because carbohydrates will always be metabolized first, it makes sense to decrease the availability of this substrate to the mitochondria.

Meals should be low in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and relatively high in fat to keep the mitochondria in fat oxidation mode as much as possible. Snacks should be avoided because each time carbohydrate is consumed, it moves to the front of the line in the mitochondrial queue.

“Mitochondrial regeneration offers some hope in the battle to fend off and possibly reverse obesity.”

A recent study by Juvenon founder, Dr. Tory Hagen (see abstract link here), showed (in rats) that supplementation with acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) can reverse the age-related decline in fatty acid transport into mitochondria. This was most likely because the ALCAR stimulated PGC-1 alpha and mitochondrial renewal.

Acetyl-L-carnitine supplementation also reversed the age-related decline in carnitine palmitoyltransferase 1 (CPT1) activity in interfibrillar mitochondria without changing the L-carnitine content in the rat heart. CPT1 is important because it helps regulate the oxidation of fat into energy in the mitochondria.

Mitochondrial regeneration offers some hope in the battle to fend off and possibly reverse obesity, one of the top preventable risk factors for premature mortality. In the coming months, the Juvenon Health Journal will continue to explore other preventable causes of death cited in the Harvard study.

By offering effective, all-natural supplements and health news you can use, Juvenon provides an essential tool kit to battle these aging enemies.

Understanding the potential main obesity cause helps you determine how to prevent this condition in the first place. It’s also important to take care of your diet and exercise habits, improve on your food choices, and follow a healthy lifestyle to maintain the ideal weight.

So, take care of your body by living healthily!

What are your best practices to help your body lose weight and maintain a healthy weight in kilograms? Share them in the comments section below!

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 13, 2013, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.