(Original February 15th, 2020. Updated April 22, 2023)
It was Valentine’s Day yesterday, and I made a HUGE mistake. I worked all day in northern Louisiana, and my hotel tonight was in Pearl, Mississippi. I had four more hours of driving ahead of me, including two stops for charging the Tesla and grabbing dinner. After a 15-hour workday of floating 12 horses, I planned a well-deserved, hot, nutritious meal. At my first attempt at dinner, I realized that EVERY MAN ON THE PLANET was taking their valentine out for dinner. I concluded that food must equal love, as the sign I saw a month earlier had said above a restaurant in the Newark Liberty International Airport (see the feature image of this blog).
Not one parking space could be found near any restaurant. Even the drive-thru lane at Panda Express went around the building. Not judging here, but Panda Express for Valentine’s meal is setting the sights lower than maybe the date was expecting. So I settled for a turkey and guacamole wrap with spinach, olives and brown mustard at a Subway inside a truck stop. No, I didn’t get chips or cookies and tore off ½ of the wrap.
I tried to trademark “Food ≠ Love,” but I found that Dr. Phil had beaten me to it with the expression, “Food does not equal love.” From what I saw last night, no one is listening to Dr. Phil either. Making matters worse, there are lots of people out there who look at preparing food as an art form. My son is one of those who went to culinary school, is gifted in the meal preparation and has taste buds inherited from someone other than me.
Eating Is About Surviving – Period
In reality, eating food is a survival mechanism. It is a set of survival mechanisms that switch on and off depending on how good or bad things are in our world. For example, when things are good, such as when the temperature outside suits our ability to stay warm, the food we eat will create the energy we need, and we will not eat in excess. When the weather gets cold, the mechanism will change when the food we eat starts to store fat, and we seem to remain hungry all the time. Through this mechanism, the body ensures the addition of excess calories to hold more fat to survive winter. If we ever start living in an environment with less oxygen than expected, another mechanism is activated that assures our survival. This is the mechanism used by cancer cells that live in a slightly lower oxygen environment to survive and grow on sugar.
It all boils down to sugar. But with so much said about it, we all need clarification about what it is. And then it does taste good too.
The Environment Triggers The Path
In a nutshell, when everything is good, and there is little stress in life, the fuel used by us and by our horses is glucose which is burned by the mitochondria in the cell to make energy. Of course, there is a cost to this, as there is with everything in life, so we rest, allowing our mitochondria to rebuild the materials needed to make more energy (ATP). This avoids mitochondrial exhaustion, and no illnesses occur. In essence, the body adapts to both good and bad environments.
When the environment changes, signaling that hardship is coming (winter cold and a lack of food), a large amount of glucose is taken in that far exceeds our daily needs. This is normal. The glucose is then converted into another sugar called fructose by ripe fruits that animals eat. Both sugars have the same amount of elements (6 carbons, six oxygens and 12 hydrogens) but are put together differently. This difference signals a different metabolic pathway to becoming activated. That signal activates the use of an enzyme called fructose kinase to break down fructose, and the purpose of this triggered pathway is to 1) add body fat, 2) slow the normal mitochondrial metabolism (exhaustion) and 3) decrease the effectiveness of the satiating hormone leptin. The result is that our horses are always hungry, out of energy and getting fatter.
Are There Other Sources Of Fructose?
In humans, it is worse because there is a 50:50 mix of glucose and fructose in table sugar. When liquified, this mixed sugar has more fat-making effects (sugar in soda or coffee, high fructose corn syrup) than in a solid form (cookies or a candy bar). Horses usually don’t ingest fructose unless they can access fruit such as apples or the fructans of growing spring grass. But this next part is new and essential to understanding. Researchers have recently discovered that fructose is made by humans and other tested animals (not tested in horses). Because this discovery has been made in various other animals, I will assume it could be true in horses too. What does this assumption mean?
If horses convert excess glucose into fructose, could Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) be caused by the excess feeding of foods high in glucose? This would include grains, hay (last summer’s grass) and summer grass. But, more importantly, these are being fed throughout the year, signaling to the horse that hardship is ahead and to store more fat, exhaust the mitochondria, consume the body proteins (breakdowns and disease) and be constantly hungry.
And Then There’s Uric Acid
In animal studies, when fructose is made from excess glucose intake, one result is an elevation in uric acid. This leads to kidney inflammation, hypertension, and pancreatic islet cell inflammation, which results in decreased insulin production and increased blood glucose (diabetes). Conversely, giving a drug that inhibits fructose kinase prevents the formation of uric acid, resulting in normalized blood pressure and blood insulin levels. The conclusion is that glucose doesn’t cause these diseases, but fructose and its survival metabolic pathway do. Therefore, sugar isn’t the problem – the EXCESS sugar converted into fructose is the problem.
Fascinating to think about where we are today in human research and frustrating to know where we are in horse health and its relation to nutrition. But as long as we think that food equals love, we will continue to get poor health from our horses. So I think it is time to embrace this:
Food ≠ Love
PS – the future will bring more details on sugar’s role in mitochondrial exhaustion, chronic protein deficiency and the possibility of intermittent fasting in horses as a treatment for high insulin levels, high ACTH and EMS/obesity in our horses.