But some surprising studies in America are starting to reveal that even under gruelling training regimes, people fail to lose as much weight as they should. In a study of overweight women, Dr Timothy Church of Louisiana University examined what would happen if they conducted differing levels of exercise. One group was asked to do no additional exercise, while three other groups were asked to spend 72 minutes, minutes or minutes with a trainer each week for six months.
All were asked not to change their diet. The results were surprising. While all of the women lost weight, including the control group which is thought to be a consequence of basing the study on overweight women who wanted to lose weightthose who exercised the most did not lose significantly more weight than those who were told not to change their diet.
A dose of the cold could help weight loss and reduce heart disease. So after spending time in the gym, they eat a chocolate muffin, which undoes all of the work they did.
Another study due to be published next month in the journal of Public Health Nutrition by researchers at the University of Leeds draws similar conclusions. Professor John Blundell and his colleagues found that people asked to do supervised exercise to lose weight also increased the amount they ate and reduced their intake of fruit and vegetables.
Even when exercise energy expenditure is high, a healthy diet is still required for weight loss to occur in many people. The problem, it seems, is that exercise is a relatively poor way of burning calories. So exasperated scientists are now starting to turn to the most unlikely of solutions — fat itself. Until recently, fat has been disregarded as a simple storage tissue — a place where excess energy is tucked away by the body for when food is scarce.
With our modern diets, this excess energy is never needed, so it builds up, creating layers of fat. New findings, however, are suggesting that fat plays a far more active role in the body.
And scientists at Harvard have found it may be possible to manipulate body fat so it starts to do us good. Fat found around the belly, known as intra-abdominal fat, has been found to be harmful, increasing the risk of metabolic diseases such as diabetes. But subcutaneous, or peripheral fat, found beneath the skin of the hips and thighs works to protect us. In research on rats, Prof Kahn has found it is possible to transplant peripheral fat into the abdominal area, and so reduce the risk of developing obesity-related diseases.
Another discovery, however, has this year set the world of obesity research alight — that humans have deposits of brown adipose tissue, or brown fat. Unlike white fat, brown fat burns energy rather than stores it. And it burns a lot of energy. Previously, adult humans were not thought to have any brown fat — it had only ever been found in animals such as rodents or in human babies, quickly disappearing as they grew older.
But a new scanning technique this year revealed tiny hot spots around the necks of patients, with brown fat cells mixed in with the white fat. A little bit more active brown fat can be very beneficial for helping to keep weight down.
Like muscle tissue, brown fat contains abundant numbers of tiny cellular power plants known as mitochondria. In muscle, these convert sugar into the energy that powers our bodies. But in brown fat, the mitochondria are slightly defective and highly inefficient, meaning that much of the energy is lost as heat.
Scientists now believe that activating brown fat stores in obese patients — and even increasing their levels of brown fat — could help them to keep their weight down. In particular, Prof Kahn has discovered that a growth factor called BMP-7 can be used to turn stem cells into brown fat.
When this was transplanted into mice, the tissue formed discrete islands of brown fat.
The team now plans to use the approach on fat from humans. Other groups are also looking at alternative methods to maximise the amount of brown fat in obese patients by manipulating cells.
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