Asian Food Network taps Prof. Hayes for documentary

Surge in obesity prompts healthy diet education, dissemination

Photos/Mike Lovett

China and India have joined overweight America in the obesity epidemic that’s sweeping across the world, and concern over this has prompted the folks at the Asian Food Channel to create a documentary investigating healthy diets.

Singapore-based film crew from Two Chiefs recently met with Brandeis Professor K.C. Hayes to learn more about his work with dietary fats. They will continue on to New York, the United Kingdom, China, Malaysia and Singapore interviewing food scientists and nutritional researchers. Completion of the film is slated for December of this year.

“The writing's on the wall for many countries,”’ says director and producer Soo-Mae Khoo, who has done work with both the Discovery Channel and History Channel. “The Malaysian government decided earlier this year to track the Body Mass Index  of its school children in their annual report cards so that they could keep an eye on the increasingly obese population in the country.” Obese kids, she says, are likely to become obese adults, which can lead to problems and to increased health care costs.

Khoo says that obesity is a growing worry in countries like India and China where rapid development has meant a rise in the spending power of its people. Unlike mature developed nations like the United States and United Kingdom, where the obese population generally is relatively poor, obese populations in Asia appear to pool around the ever-widening middle classes. 

“As diets and portions change, middle-class Asians are eating more refined sugars and carbohydrates, so the numbers have climbed dramatically in the past decade,” says Khoo. “These refined carbs come in the form of French fries, soda and burgers with buns that you'd find in Western Fast Food restaurants. Middle-class kids insist that their parents take them to these places because being ‘American’ or ‘Western’ is seen as modern and something to aspire to.”

Khoo says that the Asian Food Channel wanted to connect with Hayes because of his extensive research in the area of dietary fat and lipids.

“He was one of the earliest adopters and researchers on palm oil in North America,” says Khoo. “Since palm oil is commercially important in parts of Asia — more so than soy or corn oil — we wanted to see what he had to say about it. He's been very open with his knowledge and keen to share it with the rest of the world, which is a bonus for any filmmaker.”

Hayes, a professor of biology in nutrition and director of the Foster Biomedical Research Laboratories at Brandeis, has been studying the effects of dietary fat and oils and how they’re metabolized for nearly four decades. In addition to his training in nutritional pathology, Hayes holds a degree in veterinary medicine. His specific interest has been in cardiovascular disease as affected by diabetes and obesity with a focus on the relationship between individual fatty acids as they relate to blood cholesterol and triglyceride transport. Hayes also directed the research behind the Smart Balance blended-fat products, which help reduce cholesterol, and technologies to produce cholesterol-lowering soy and cow’s milk.

Hayes says that Smart Balance contains four different oils: soybean, palm, canola and olive. Palm oil is a saturated fat, which we need to keep the high-density lipoproteins (HDL) up in your blood.

“By using the blends and working on the concept of which fats were correct, we found out that we could use saturated fats to keep the HDL elevated even while we put in the polyunsaturated fat to lower the low-density lipoproteins (LDL), which is considered the bad cholesterol transport molecule in blood,” says Hayes.

Palm oil, he says, was incorporated as the saturated fat because of its unique structure; soybean oil is rich in both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, which work to lower cholesterol and LDL. Canola oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and has a generous component of omega 3 and omega 6. They then put in olive oil as a very rich source of mono-unsaturated fatty acids.

Smart Balance products have sold very successfully across the United States.

On a personal level, Hayes says he eats oatmeal in the morning and has a bowl of “27 vegetable soup nearly every night,” a recipe that he created. The tall, lean researcher has been married for 50 years and has two children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“We know that there are many risk factors that go with being overweight,” says Hayes. “There is a high association with mortality for a variety of diseases, and it’s very difficult for our overall physiology as the heart must work harder to supply blood to the extra adipose tissue. Complications also arise from added burden on the body joints and mobility. In addition, obesity affects lifestyle, our mind, emotions and how we interact with others."

Hayes says that when there is an imbalance in the number of calories consumed and the number of calories burned, extra adipose tissue is formed— in other words, we  store more fat.  It is an energy source that your body can utilize, if needed, but the reality of modern day is it is seldom recalled to duty. He also stresses the importance of having certain fats in the diet, such as omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, which are essential fatty acids in our membrane fat (phosopholipids), allowing each type of cell to be different.

“The fats that we eat are an important factor  in our entire physiology,” says Hayes. "They get incorporated into the structural molecules that allow our membranes to function properly. Without the essential fatty acids in polyunsaturated fats many systems fail....”

Khoo says that one of the goals of the film will be explaining how it’s not saturated fat that's causing an obesity epidemic, but the widespread incorporation of refined carbohydrates and sugar into diets where sugar was previously not used.

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