Tag Archives: deuterium

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Nuclear a heavyweight in the battle against obesity

For centuries, hunger and a lack of food was the norm for the general population.

Being overweight or obese was considered a symbol of wealth and prosperity. It wasn’t until improvements in farming and industrial technologies developed in the 18th century that the number of people who were overweight started to increase.

“The scarcity of food throughout most of history had led to connotations that being fat was good, and that corpulence and increased ‘flesh’ were desirable as reflected in the arts, literature, and medical opinion of the times,” a 2006 Baylor College of Medicine paper on the history of obesity explained.

Almost 200 years later, “being fat” or obesity is no longer good and has become a full-blown epidemic in both the developed and developing world.

In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized obesity as a global epidemic as rates rose in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, China and Thailand.

“Overweight and obesity represent a rapidly growing threat to the health of populations in an increasing number of countries,” the WHO stated in a 2000 study. “Indeed, they are now so common that they are replacing more traditional problems such as undernutrition and infectious diseases as the most significant causes of ill-health.”

Now, nuclear technology is being used in the battle against childhood obesity, which has increased from 4.2% of the population to 6.7% between 1990 and 2010. Every third eleven-year-old child in Europe and Central Asia is overweight or obese, according to the WHO. And the problem is worse in developing countries. Of 42 million children under five years of age with excess weight, 31 million are in developing countries.

The IAEA is now supporting efforts to use isotope techniques to better measure body composition and energy expenditure to assess how lifestyle changes can help in the fight against childhood obesity, Body composition is assessed using the deuterium dilution technique by Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR).

Through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) technical cooperation programme, the IAEA has supplied FTIR equipment to authorities in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece and Montenegro to help with analysis of deuterium enrichment in saliva samples.

During May’s European Congress on Obesity conference, the IAEA held a symposium titled “Assessing body composition for better understanding of risks related to childhood obesity and designing effective interventions” to explain the role of isotope techniques.

So how does the technology work?

A person drinks a weighed amount of non-radioactive water with deuterium, a stable isotope of hydrogen.  After a few hours the isotope is spread throughout the body water, which can be sampled in the form of saliva or urine.  Deuterium enrichment in saliva is measured using an FTIR or an isotope ratio mass spectrometer (IRMS). Since the amount of deuterium is known, the total volume of body water can be calculated from the enrichment.  Based on the assumption, that fat is water-free, scientists can accurately determine the body’s ratio of fat and fat-free tissue.

“This nuclear technique is accurate and safe to use in all age groups, it is not associated with any radiation hazard, and is suitable for the use in field settings,” according to the IAEA.

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Nuclear Science: Unlocking Answers To Malnutrition

A healthy diet begins with having enough food to eat, but we need more than that. A healthy diet provides a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals which are critical to growth, development and disease resistance.

A deficiency in minerals and vitamins is called hidden hunger.  One might feel full but one’s growth and development can be stunted in the absence of necessary nutrients.

According to a 2014 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), hidden hunger and undernutrition affects nearly two billion people. That’s almost 1/3 of the global population.

In 2013, 6.5 million children died before five years of age. And 45% of these deaths are linked to maternal and child malnutrition.

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Relative risk of mortality associated with estimated low weight-for-age (Figure adapted from Caulfield et al. 2004, Am J Clin Nutr.)

Increased child mortality is not the only impact of undernutrition. A lack of food variety coupled with unhealthy environments and limited access to health care can increase the risk of disease, and hold back mental and physical development.

“165 million children are stunted or not as tall as they should be for their age. In some cases, they are stunted not because they are hungry but because the quality of their diets is poor or because they are frequently sick.” Christine Slater, nutrition specialist at the IAEA.

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Chronic infections and repeated illnesses in children, like respiratory infections, can be an indicator of a deficiency in essential nutrients.

Nuclear technology is one tool in the fight against malnutrition. A technique called deuterium dilution helps to determine body composition, or the percentage of fat versus fat-free mass.

Deuterium is a stable form of hydrogen that includes a neutron. It bonds with oxygen to make water that acts just like regular water, but weighs more because of the neutron.

Taken into the body through drinking, concentrated deuterium passes into the body’s water, and after a few hours is evenly distributed throughout the body water. Body water is sampled as saliva, urine or blood. From the amount of deuterium consumed, and the concentration in body water, we can calculate the amount of fat-free mass. If this is subtracted from body weight, we have an estimate of the amount of fat in the body.

Scientists think this measurement technique gives more reliable results—especially for children—than measuring skinfold thickness or body-mass index. It can be used to evaluate programs that provide children with nutrients to promote healthy growth while limiting the risk of obesity later in life.

Deuterium dilution techniques have been used for many years in high-income countries, according to Slater, and with the help if the IAEA Technical Cooperation Program, these benefits can be found in low- and middle-income countries as well.

There are many other applications. For example, cancer treatments often leave patients malnourished. This procedure could help provide doctors with better information on their patients’ nutritional status.

As Slater points out, malnutrition is a complex problem requiring a multi-pronged solution that includes a better diet and cleaner environment. An effective diagnosis helps makes the solution possible.

“Malnutrition is not just to do with food and quality of diet but environmental influences,” says Slater. “Children who live in dirty environments and don’t have access to good sanitation can get sick and we find in a lot of cases that their guts are damaged.  So even if they get good quality food they can’t absorb the nutrients.”