Obesity is an epidemic. We might live in a world where people are more obsessed with their appearances than ever before, but we also live in the age of fast food, and for many, especially those from a low socio-economic background, it's almost impossible to resist. Why fork out $8 for a salad when you can have a 99c cheeseburger, right?
It's no wonder, then, that a 2008 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 32.2% of men and 35.5% of women in America are obese. And, as we all know, obesity not only comes hand-in-hand with physical ailments, but it can affect people mentally too, resulting in conditions like body dysmorphia.
But what if I told you that in the not too distant future, you could gorge on a bucket of Colonel Sander's finest without gaining so much as an ounce? Well, this might sound like an impossible dream (and the dieting industry's worst nightmare), but incredibly, it could soon be a reality thanks to the results of a groundbreaking study into genetics.
Scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Flinders Unversity in Australia recently revealed in the journal EMBO Reports that obesity can be stopped by "switching off" a single gene. Seriously. It's that simple.
The gene in question is known as RCAN1, and it acts as a feedback inhibitor for various metabolic processes and the body's production of heat. And scientists discovered that when it was switched off it had a very curious - and downright exciting - effect on mice's ability to gain weight. In short, it supercharged their metabolism and stopped them gaining weight.
While the gene has only been switched off in mice, scientists are excited about the implications which this finding could have for humans, especially those suffering from obesity or metabolic conditions.
"We know a lot of people struggle to lose weight or even control their weight for a number of different reasons. The findings in this study could mean developing a pill which would target the function of RCAN1 and may result in weight loss," lead author, Professor Damien Keating of Flinders University, said in a statement. "These results show we can potentially make a real difference in the fight against obesity."
"We have already developed a series of drugs that target the protein that this gene makes, and we are now in the process of testing them to see if they inhibit RCAN1 and whether they might represent potential new anti-obesity drugs," he added.
A little-known fact about human body fat is that it comes in two forms: white fat and brown fat. White fat is what most of us think of when we hear the word "fat" and it's used to store energy. Brown fat, on the other hand, is full of mitochondria, and burns up energy and produces heat. And when the RCAN1 gene is disabled, it can help convert white fat into brown fat.
"In light of our results, the drugs we are developing to target RCAN1 would burn more calories while people are resting," Keating explained. "It means the body would store less fat without the need for a person to reduce food consumption or exercise more."
However, before you have a preemptive celebratory McDonald's, it's worth noting that for the sake of your health, gorging on junk food all time is still going to have a negative effect, even if it doesn't expand your waistline!
The Australian has reported that the National Health and Medical Research Council has provided the funding required to extend the research and "continue to explore viable options" in the fight against obesity.
[caption id="attachment_26875" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Credit: Evening Standard[/caption]
"The ideal would be to take some sort of pill that didn’t require you to watch your diet, that didn't require you to exercise," Keating said. "Now, that might seem like a pipe dream, but the findings that we have out of this mouse study at least indicate a novel pathway that we might be able to target."