Doctors and doting parents tell you to take your vitamins. In some cases, this habit can be extremely beneficial to your health. In other cases, like with the supplementation of B-vitamins, it might be doing your figure a disservice.
There’s evidence to show that vitamin-B enriched foods are fattening us up, and it begins with some simple farming tactics that have now left a hefty weight on our nation’s scales.
We Needed To Feed a Growing Nation
Let’s take a trip back to the mid-20th century when pig farmers discovered that if they fortified their corn and soy feed with B-vitamins, their pigs would gain weight quickly without suffering from any nutritional deficiencies that could make them sick and skinny, and thus unable to produce a tasty product for consumers.
Adding vitamins to feed removed the need for pigs to graze and allowed for factory farming. This tactic has been used by farmers to fatten up their animals since then.
If they fortified their corn and soy feed with B-vitamins, their pigs would gain weight quickly.
In 2017, the University of Kentucky found that the added B-vitamins not only had positive impacts on raising the pig’s body weight, but the pigs that ate fortified feed were also more inclined to eat more. A bigger, hungrier pig equals a better product to sell.
Then the Test Subjects Became Human
That’s all well and good for pigs, but what does vitamin-B enriched food have to do with us humans? Let’s start by looking back at when an epidemic hit two regions of the world in the early 1900s: the southern United States and northern Italy. This illness, pellagra, turned out to be a deficiency in niacin, or vitamin B3.
The two countries took two different approaches: America responded by enriching common products like flour with B-vitamins (in the form of niacin, riboflavin, and thiamine, plus other vitamins) and Italy responded by encouraging their people to just drink more wine. Wow, what a tragic prescription.
Mark Schatzker, author of The End of Craving: Recovering the Lost Wisdom of Eating Well, explained the logic behind Italy’s response: “Wine back then wasn’t very well-filtered, and it had a lot of yeast in it, and yeast has a lot of niacin in it.”
Despite both populations recovering – albeit Italy recovered at a slower pace – one country went on a fortification frenzy while the other stuck to their ancestral diets. In America, B-vitamins now enrich countless products beyond just flour.
You’d think that adding vitamins to everything would improve health, right? Wrong. We’re adding in more nutrients, yet we’re facing worse nutritional outcomes.
Italy hovers around a 20% obesity rate, while America was around 42% in 2018.
Obesity is now a global epidemic, but certain countries feel the pain more than others. While Italy recovered from its vitamin depletion through natural means, America fortified its populace. When comparing adults, Italy hovers around a 20% obesity rate, and America was around 42% in 2018, according to the CDC.
There is a clear difference in obesity rates for countries where flour fortification isn’t allowed versus ones where it’s commonplace. Low or no fortification? Lower rates of obesity. Regular to high fortification? High rates of obesity. Could this be why French women can eat bread so often without adding extra inches to their waistlines?
How Do B-Vitamins Make Us Fat?
Both our internal bodily functions and our external physique can be altered by B-vitamin fortification. Think back to the enriched feed that pigs get fattened up with. Those extra B-vitamins affect your energy and metabolism by helping your body to metabolize carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, as well as use the energy that comes from food. Basically, B-vitamins unlock the energy in food for your body to use it. But if everything you eat comes with a dose of B-vitamins, then essentially your body becomes too efficient at extracting calories. If they’re not used right away, they get converted to fat.
Then take into consideration what types of products are fortified. Ready-to-eat fortified cereals, for example, have such high levels of B-vitamins that your typical portion already meets your daily need for that vitamin. White flour (and its “healthier” swap, wheat flour) is also B-vitamin fortified. Flour is a staple product with many people basing the majority of their meal on a flour-based carb, and in turn, they consume higher amounts of artificially-added B-vitamins.
B-vitamins unlock the energy in food for your body to use it.
Furthermore, grain-focused diets never used to be linked to obesity or diabetes. Oddly enough though, now that grains are heavily processed and fortified, people who consume them end up with higher glycemic responses, insulin resistance, and develop gluten intolerances. No wonder why people think they can’t eat carbs. They’re just eating the wrong types!
How To Reduce Excess Vitamin B Intake
Just because you live in a country with high fortification levels, it doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly start packing on pounds. You can always strive to avoid certain types of products – like uber-processed packaged foods with other ingredients you might not want in your body – and shoot to eat whole grains and root starches.
You could also counter your extra intake of B-vitamins simply by being less sedentary. Studies show that water-soluble vitamins, like B-vitamins, can be eliminated by sweating.
Knowing what we now know about the role B-vitamins play in weight gain, the words “fortified” or “enriched” are rather ironic. Perhaps we should instead take a page from the playbook of countries that prioritize a more natural, wholesome approach to the ingredients they put into their bodies – the countries that have a lower obesity rate to show for it.
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