Aging: The Obesity Problem

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Guest:  Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley Director of Center on Aging

Host:  Sally Smith - Author/Resource literature on age-related disease and healthy aging


Sally Smith:  Welcome to Age to Age.  I’m Sally Smith.  Let’s talk.  We have with us, again, Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley, Director of the Center on Aging here at MUSC.  She also does basic science research and is involved in many cooperatives on aging, locally and internationally.  She has been kind enough to talk to us about some of the factors affecting Alzheimer’s.  We were speaking a moment ago about the French paradox, which is that you can eat your sauces if you also drink red wine and eat dark chocolate.  The French are a great example of a society that has remained fairly fit.  We’ve talked about certain foods.  A good, fresh diet is always good.  I’ve also read that genetics are a big factor in whether someone will develop Alzheimer’s or not, and, also, obesity.  Tell us a little bit about this emerging giant.


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Well, it’s interesting.  There are several research lines that would suggest that obesity is genetic.  But if it is genetic, why has it increased enormously in our country in the last couple of decades?  In fact, the rate of obesity in children has tripled over the last 10 or 15 years.  And, at this point, we can compare, for example, Japan.  In Japan, the obesity rate is three percent.  Here, it’s thirty percent, and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down.  And we’re right in the middle, in South Carolina, of the obesity battle. 


Sally Smith:  What has brought on that change, in your opinion?


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Several different things.  We eat too much.  If you look at the dinner plate in Europe compared to the dinner plate in the United States, you know, at restaurants, at our houses, and so on, the plates are much larger here.  We simply eat too much.  In Europe, for example, they don’t have the doggie bag when you go to a restaurant.  Their servings are just enough for an adult person.  In fact, if you look at calorie intake, as adults, we’re supposed to eat about 2000 calories a day.  The average calorie intake is 3500 per person.


Sally Smith:  Wow.  So, you wear the difference. 


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Yes.  You wear the difference. 


Sally Smith:  And, of course, exercise can cut down to some degree, but how much is required?  I know in Spin class, which is the exercise bicycle, sometimes for a good hour, a hard ride, you’ll use about 500 calories, but that’s hard exercise for one hour.  Most people are not doing that.  Exercise is important, but it’s not going to take off the extra 1500 calories that you ate that day.


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  No.  I think what we need to do is, actually, as a society, move more overall.  And I think that the answer is not to go to the gym, and so on.  The answer is to build it into our daily activities.  For example, when I grew up in Sweden, we didn’t have school buses.  I had to get to school either by walking or biking.  There was no other choice.  My parents wouldn’t drive me.  They also biked to work.  So I think, we, as a society, as city planners, and educators, and scientists, have to build in a moveable society to a much greater extent than we have been.  


Sally Smith:  And is this partly why Japan, and France, and other countries do not have the obesity problem?


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Absolutely.  I was in Kyoto for a conference, and if you looked on the streets, they were biking and walking.  They don’t think it’s strange to have an hour walk in the morning to work.  Actually, because of the pollution, they wear their mouth covers and put their sneakers on and walk to work.  It doesn’t have to be high-impact exercise.  In fact, there was a study in France that showed that if you walk at a moderate speed for half an hour, three times a week, you can actually cut down your risk for Alzheimer’s significantly. 


Sally Smith:  Wow, so little can make some difference.  What about how we cook our food, in considering obesity?


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Great topic.  I’m a basic scientist, so I have a lab, and I work with rats in my lab.  Our basic science is driven by the clinical research here at MUSC.  We were working with an Alzheimer’s group, Jacob Mitzer and David Bachman, who we’ve heard from in other interviews.  What they found in their patients here in South Carolina was that high cholesterol is a very high risk for Alzheimer’s disease.  So we decided to test it in rats.  We gave cholesterol, as well as trans-fats, which are enormously dangerous, twelve percent, for eight weeks, tested their memory, and they were what we call flatliners.  They couldn’t learn.  They didn’t understand tasks. 


Sally Smith:  Wow.


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Then I started looking at the literature and, indeed, it’s been shown that the trans-fats, particularly, will increase your risk for memory loss, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps, also, for Parkinson’s disease.


Sally Smith:  You know, I remember you telling me one time how terrified you were that trans-fats were out there and being used.  I know, now, that New York has said that nothing can be cooked with trans-fats, so now I read the packaging.  Where are trans-fats out there in South Carolina?  Is it still being used here in, say, fast food restaurants?  Where does a person come into contact with trans-fats, is it a cooking oil?


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Yes.  It’s everywhere, actually.  You can look at the packages and it might say 0 trans-fats, but it contains processed oil, palmitate oil.  It’s a new sort of replacement for trans-fats.


Sally Smith:  So, it may say 0 trans-fats, but they’ve just worded it differently?


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Exactly.  I would avoid processed oil.  The fact is that the fast food industry is probably the biggest crook here.  But, we have cookies, corn flakes, all kinds of cereals, precooked waffles, anything can contain it, and we really have to be careful about what we feed our children. 


The interesting thing is that trans-fats came about after World War II.  There was a way to actually process vegetable oil to give it a longer shelf life.  Actually, to make margarine, you take vegetable oil and make it solid at room temperature.  And we never really tested its toxicity.  We don’t know what it does to humans.


Sally Smith:  I see.  It got under the wire.


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  It was before.  Testing is now very rigorous.


Sally Smith:  When I heard you speak of it one day, it was, in very small amounts, seriously damaging.  You were saying that you were terrified your son might be, inadvertently, getting these trans-fats, and they were something like lead paint, or something that could permanently damage you.  Is this right?


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Absolutely.  I read somewhere, actually, that the children of today will have a shorter life span than their parents, us.  And this is the first time ever, since the cave age, through famine, through world wars.  It’s terrifying.


Sally Smith:  It’s so fascinating how basics come up every time as the way to go.  I mean, you look at how our parents grew up with fresh vegetables cooked a certain way, olive oil, that sort of thing, then to this processed food, fast food chains, all of this, and look what it’s doing to us.  It’s changing our whole future and society, and how do you reverse that?  I read in the paper that they’re revamping the cafeteria programs for the schools, fewer soda machines, and things like that.  But it’s sort of overwhelming.  What would you do for South Carolina?  Would you say no trans-fats like they did in New York City?  Is that something that might ever happen?


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  Absolutely.  We can take small measures actually.  One by one, we need to change the culture, especially in the southern states.  I’ve done it.  My son was on the swim team and they were having swim meets, and the parents were in charge of the concession stand.  And what do you think they served?  On a hot summer day, they had chips, coke, soft drinks, and candy.  So, I kept nagging, like the mother that I am, and this summer, two summers since then, they are having watermelon, blueberries, and grapes.  I’m so happy that I could change one little swim team.  They were listening to me.  I think it’s the job of scientists, who are showing the hardcore data, to tell the public about the dangers of all of this. 


Sally Smith:  My husband is a pediatric surgeon here.  There’s much discussion about gastric bypass surgery.  I’ve looked at it quite a lot in articles.  Some people think that it should be like a public health service.  Some of these children are two and three hundred pounds at 10 and 11 years old.  It’s not just about Alzheimer’s.  They’re not going to live long enough to get Alzheimer’s.  They’re going to be dying of stroke and diabetes, and a myriad of other horrible things that come with obesity. 


Obviously, education and self-restraint is the key, preventive behavior, and each person should be responsible for themselves.  But isn’t it amazing that a whole section of childcare has become how to surgically deal with their obesity?  I find that obscene, really.  I’m not saying that it isn’t necessary, in some cases.  But it’s ridiculous that our society cannot, you know, have the smaller portions and walk to school.  It’s not like somebody has made us obese. 


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  It’s appalling.  And I think there are many different things that can be done.  I’m active in a soccer program here called Charleston United.  What we try to do is bring after-school programs to children who have no sports.  There is nothing for them to do after school.  The only thing to do is go over to the fast food restaurants, to meet there and eat.  Another problem with trans-fats is that the body can’t process them.  So, you eat, but the body doesn’t get what it needs, and it’s hungry again. 


Sally Smith:  Oh my.  You’re not satisfied?


Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  You’re not satisfied, so you keep eating more.  I think it’s our responsibility, as a society, to take care of this problem.


Sally Smith:  Well, I mean, it gets into a lot of other things, like television, unlimited access to television, to video games, to computer games.  I mean, those parents need to take the role of yanking some of that and let kids play, read books.  A lot of things are slowly changing, not just our physical size in this more sedentary society.  It really all comes back down to American society.  The whole foundation it was made on was the assumption that people would exercise personal responsibility.  You know, to have healthcare, and all these things, fix our problems, when, really, an awful lot of them, if we think about it with an open mind, are of our own making.



Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley:  We’re also giving the food industry, the fast food industry, the power to advertise directly to our children, for example, I’ve seen the Reese’s chocolate cereal advertisement that always ends with, part of a good breakfast.  How can the government allow this?  This needs to change.  In Europe, you could not do that.  It’s like saying cigarettes are great for you, part of a good breakfast.  There’s no difference.


Sally Smith:  When it comes to your health, you’ve got to take personal responsibility.  This is just fascinating about obesity.  And, unfortunately, I think it’s going to be a topic we talk about many times to come.  Thank you, Lotta, for being with us.  And thanks to all our listeners for joining.  We welcome your suggestions on our website.  This is Sally Smith, Age to Age, saying good-bye and wishing you courage and joy on your journey.  We are all connected.


If you enjoy listening to Sally Smith, you can buy her book, The Circle.  It’s the story of how she personally responded to her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease.  It’s a wonderful gift of hope for anyone with a parent with dementia.  Just click on Sally Smith’s name under the Health Professionals tab on the Podcast home page.  All profits support research at the Center on Aging.  Thanks.

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