Leptin – the fat silver bullet or mad science?


The term leptin comes from the Greek leptos for thin. Scientists possibly hoping to make obscene amounts of money for the pharmaceutical companies they work for have been slaving over hot test tubes to prove that leptin is the key to eradicating obesity – fat to you and me.

Call me stupid, and many have, but I would have thought the most straight forward way to thinness was keeping your mouth shut more often, but there’s no money in that.

Scientists thought they were onto a good thing when experiments with mice threw up the ob/ob (obese) mouse which was attributed to their levels of leptin. Leptin is believed to control the appetite according to scientists and is, unusually, produced in fat cells in the body, not glands.

These chubby mice were injected with leptin and they became thinner.

The scientists became very excited and saw huge profits from applying this to humans. Give fat people leptin and they will drop to a normal dress size and everyone will want to get this product.

So the US Amgen company set to work on leptin. Biotech shares soared in value. Human trials began and for a year, fat volunteers ( I assume) were injected daily with leptin. At the end of the year there was no difference in their weights. The trial was a failure.

What had gone wrong?

The scientists scratched their heads and concluded that fat people were fat and by giving them more leptin than they had in their bodies would not help because they were, by being fat, leptin resistant.

Work continued on leptin and its influences on appetite. It was claimed that leptin increased in offspring of obese mice and rats in the days after birth where the mother was obese, and this was critical for brain development, or that part of the brain, the hypothalamus which controlled appetite.

The scientists claimed the offspring of obese mothers became leptin resistant too. These young with their leptin levels set just after birth went on to eat more than normal weight mice did and became fatter. The reason was too much leptin produced by them, it was said.

I can understand the conclusions made in relation to rats and mice in a laboratory where food is supplied to the animals but translating this to human behaviour doesn’t necessarily apply, possibly. Fat mothers are fat because of their lifestyle. They don’t value a healthy diet nor exercise – if they did they wouldn’t be obese. They will, obviously pass this onto their offspring and naturally, unless the offspring are unusual they will tend to get fat and lazy as well.

The key to reducing the nations’ fat is surely not genetic but learned behaviour. Perhaps even the fat baby mice were following the behaviour of the mothers and spending more time eating. Was it leptin that was driving them to eat? Well the scientists arguments haven’t convinced me yet.

It is said that if someone is starving her levels of leptin reduce (in the frontal lobes of the brain which determine the person’s morals as well as attitude towards food).

An example given by one scientist was of an air crash where survivors were driven to cannibalism – starving so having reduced leptin in the brain and therefore their moral standards had been swept away in the overwhelming interests of the body’s metabolic needs. This allowed survivors to be able to eat their fellow passengers – because of reduced leptin.

You can call me stupid again but if you are starving to death on a mountain and the only food is a stone or a fleshy body then leptin or no leptin, or a bucketful of leptin, but isn’t the drive for survival going to suggest you eat a leg or two? And I speak as a vegetarian who might be picky about which passengers I selected to partake of. Okay you can call this leptin but, you know it just doesn’t wash. I prefer human nature and basically, cannibalism is just another convention, isn’t it? We agree not to eat each other. Life’s less complicated and dangerous that way.

Now that scientists are getting into this leptin stuff they’re suggesting that leptin determines all sorts of aspects of our beings: weight, depression, anxiety, fertility – the lower the leptin levels the more anxiety and depression. Remember the people who fell onto the mountain, low leptin, anxious because they might die on the mountain so reduced to eating their fellow passengers. It’s all beginning to tie together.

Leptin, says the scientists, helps us survive famine. Next example – the Black Death caused catastrophic drop in the population of Europe in the middle ages because of the disease but why did it have such an impact? Famine had swept the country and so peoples’ resistance to the disease was low – low leptin, say the scientists, so people died.

Lost me now.

Famine meant less to eat. Body weight down and, according to scientists, levels of leptin so they – what? Couldn’t resist the disease. No, just don’t get it. I thought communities died because of living cheek by jowl with infection spread through vomiting and diarrhoea. Communities away from those most affected by the disease survived. People isolated from the disease were less likely to die – irrespective of leptin?

Oh, say scientists, the West is awash with leptin; meaning well-fed Westerners, so we eat too much. The West is awash with leptin? So we are different from other people around the world because our wealth has provided us with so much food, we eat and – wait is this a chicken and egg situation because…?

Scientists are still convinced about this thing called leptin which they hope to harness to make vast profits for biotech companies, or as they explain, to help improve the health of over-indulgent Westerners.

Leptin reduces the appetite but introducing leptin to fat people did not reduce their appetites. This is said to be because fat people have too much leptin. And while leptin suppresses appetite, too much does not, apparently. This is what I describe as faulty logic but science claims it is because fat people are resistant to leptin.

Want to get thin? Don’t wait for the mad scientists. You know what to do, you probably just can’t be bothered and that’s alright. Just don’t look to science for the answer when it’s in your own hands.

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