Bring on the runts

British researchers are trying to "chemically restructure the metabolic system of children to ensure they never become obese," says the Guardian.


Catherine Price
April 24, 2007 8:55PM (UTC)

Call me old-fashioned, but I think there's something strange about the idea of an infant formula designed to keep kids from gaining weight. After all, isn't the point of breast milk/formula/giving food to kids to make them grow?

Not anymore, apparently. According to the Guardian, British scientists "are working on a baby formula which would chemically restructure the metabolic system of children to ensure they never become obese." Proponents of the research claim that altering children's appetites early in life would prevent obesity-related health problems down the road, no dieting required.

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How does it work? Hormones. Researchers are postulating that if you give infants formulas fortified with leptin -- an appetite-suppressing hormone that our bodies naturally produce -- they'll be less likely to become obese later on. (Studies with mice have shown that heavy doses of leptin during infancy can indeed prevent weight gain and Type 2 diabetes, which is often associated with obesity.) Sounds easy enough.

But as is the case with many easy fixes, a closer look reveals some potential issues -- and I'm not even talking about the ethical question of whether we should be going against nature by actively trying to create runts of the litter. Like, for example, how are you going to conduct research trials in humans if your target is newborns -- not traditionally the age group that parents eagerly offer up for research? And some other scientists point out that leptin is "easily destroyed by stomach acids," which might make effective supplementation difficult. (The pro-leptin side says that babies will be able to absorb the hormone because their digestive systems are less developed than adults'.)

To me, though, the real question is whether we want to be addressing the growing problem of obesity and weight-related disease by playing around with hormones. Yes, I do support the idea of trying to make formula as close to breast milk as possible (the pro-leptin formula side points out that leptin is naturally found in breast milk), but deliberately fortifying formula with excessive amounts of leptin seems like tinkering with something that shouldn't be tinkered with. Instead, why don't we focus more on educating people about healthy habits -- like eating well and exercising? That's a time-tested, safe way to solve health problems, even if it's not one with as much profit potential as, say, developing a new infant formula.

As a side note, a lot of attention is being paid these days to leptin and its appetite-encouraging counterpart, ghrelin. For example, Mehmet Oz, a renowned cardiologist and author of "You: The Owner's Manual" (and the recently released "You on a Diet"), recommends a much less contrived way to make these hormones work for you: Try having a handful of walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds (healthy choices to begin with) 30 minutes before you eat. The fat in the nuts, which takes about half an hour to kick in, help suppress ghrelin production, which means you'll feel less hungry and be less likely to overeat -- without any need for fortified formula.


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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