Reprogramming Hunger

Eat whatever you want and never gain an ounce—heard that one before. But researchers at the University of Buckingham are convinced that the hormone-enhanced baby foods they’re developing really will deliver on the slim-for-life promise. As the trade mag Chemistry & Industry reported Monday, the scientists say they’ve discovered a way to coax the body to produce more leptin—the fat hormone that turns off hunger in the brain—throughout a person’s life: Feed her leptin-laced baby formula when she’s too young to even know what a hamburger is.

Previous studies have shown that animals with high leptin levels can eat tons of extra fat without developing obesity or diabetic symptoms. But giving adult humans the hormone doesn’t seem to work in the same way as feeding it to babies would; these fat-immune kids grow up to be capable of snacking away with reckless abandon, the researchers believe.

That fits in perfectly with U.S. agricultural policy, which effectively treats tykes like garbage disposals (registration required) for all the corn syrup, soybean oil, and other unhealthy products that glut the market. What’s the connection, exactly? As Michael Pollan explains in his latest great New York Times Magazine article:

[T]he current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). ...

[T]he nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow.

Dosing our wee ones with leptin could be just the thing to bring those ag policies in line with public health concerns—too bad at this point it’s just wildly optimistic science fiction.

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