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Genetic Linkage

When Health News is Old: Regaining Weight

“Keeping weight off a battle with body,” trumpeted the Associated Press’s version of The New England Journal of Medicine report that hormones hike hunger so lost weight rapidly returns. NPR, NBC, everyone, it seemed, covered the study, with nary a comment on its limitations, nor mention of the hormones involved, as if the findings are astonishing and new.

I find the study and the reporting of it incredibly ironic, because the experiment looked at too few people consuming too few calories for too short a time, to show something that we all know anyway.

The media attention especially irked me, since I recently wrote the cover story for the alumni magazine of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, chronicling and honoring the groundbreaking work of Rockefeller University’s Jeffrey Friedman. His discovery and description of the hormone leptin revealed exactly how we regain weight – in the mid 1990s.

Weight gain after dieting is easy to explain, biologically speaking, if hard to combat. Ballooning fat cells secrete leptin, which signals the brain to turn off appetite. When we starve, fat cells shrink and leptin levels fall, releasing the brain brake on appetite. We eat. It’s more complicated than that, with several hormones involved, but the point is, this is not new information.

So what did the much-reported study find? It looked at 50 people enduring a 10-week regimen of 550 calories a day, in the form of veggies and a concoction called Optifast VLCD. Only 34 people stuck it out, lowering the sample size to near insignificance.

The researchers, from the University of Melbourne, measured levels of leptin and eight other hormones, and asked the participants to assess their degree of hunger. After the three months of starvation, hormone levels changed as expected, and the people reported being hungry, also as expected. A year after the end of the starvation period, levels of seven of the nine measured hormones remained altered in a way that boosted hunger. This, then, must be the “news.” The researchers conclude, “Long-term strategies to counteract this change may be needed to prevent obesity relapse.”


I think Oprah Winfrey’s hauling of a wagon carrying 67 pounds of fat, which she had recently lost, will have a more lasting influence on dieters than either Jeffrey Friedman’s work or the new study – and that was in 1988.

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