A Pill to Lose Weight ?

Let’s start by saying that there are no miraculous solutions to losing weight, and that nothing can replace a balanced diet. But once clearly stated that, many people wonder why science hasn’t already invented some kind of pill to lose weight.

Metabolism, or understanding how our body uses the energy contained in the food that we eat, is a very active field in biomedical research. But although the basic principles are simple, it is surprising how little we know about the details.

Our bodies follow the same physical principles that rule the Universe. One of those principles states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed. In the case of living organisms, the energy contained in the food that we eat can either be incorporated into our bodies or be expelled back to the Universe in the form of urine, faeces, sweat or heat.

Part of the nutrients that we ingest are used by the cells to produce molecules of ATP. You can think as ATP as a sort of “energetic currency”. Every time a cell needs to perform a reaction that doesn’t happen spontaneously, it breaks a molecule of ATP and uses the energy that is liberated during the breakage.

The conversion of nutrients into ATP takes place inside cell compartments called mitochondria. Like every other reaction in the Universe, part of the energy of the nutrients is lost in the form of heat. In some situations, mitochondria have a natural way of reducing the amount of ATP produced and increase the heat released. To achieve this, the cells produce a molecule called “uncoupling protein”, which does what is says: uncouple the use of nutrients by the mitochondria with the production of ATP, and thus release more energy in the form of heat. This is how, for example, hibernating animals produce heat while  they are hibernating.

In the 30s, researchers from Stanford University showed that a new drug, called DNP, was effective in making lab animals and obese men lose weight. The mechanism of action of DNP is similar to that of the uncoupling protein: it interferes with the process of conversion of nutrients to ATP, increasing the amount energy that is released as heat instead of being used by the cell. As you can probably imagine, people rushed to use the new miraculous molecule.

However, the hype that followed the use of DNP had a dramatic aftermath. The ingestion of DNP produced several side effects, including skin irritation, loss of vision and hyperthermia. Some people even died after taking too much DNP!

Our bodies are carefully tuned machines. Messing with something as vital as the energy-producing pathway of our cells, using a synthetic drug is definitely not a good idea. Today the manufacturing and selling of DNP is against the law everywhere in the world.

The best way of feeling good about yourself is keeping healthy nutritional habits (see ‘Nutrition Tips I’ve Learned‘), avoiding processed foods (see ‘Five processed foods to avoid and their alternatives‘) and doing some physical exercise – it’s difficult to lose weight if you have a sedentary lifestyle.

There is no such thing as a simple solution to a complex problem, specially when it comes to metabolism. And more importantly, no one should put their health at risk to lose weight.

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Using science to understand how your body works

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About Author

Hi, my name is Emilio Greenberg and I work on obesity research. I graduated in Biology and later did my Master's degree in Madrid, where I met Sarah ("How I've met Emilio"). I now hold a PhD in Molecular Biology and am Assistant Professor at the University, so I spend my time between the bench and the classroom. My research focuses on human metabolism, obesity and the influence of different diets in our health. I try to understand how our bodies process the food that we eat and how our eating habits influence our susceptibility to disease. We are currently living an epidemics of obesity that needs to be tackled. I hope that through this series of articles I can help you understand the crucial importance for your health of keeping a balanced diet. Because, as much as a cliché as it may sound, we truly “are what we eat”... continue reading

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