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Formula for Disaster

Formula for DisasterBritish researchers are working on a baby formula that would make infants resistant to obesity later in life. Tufts nutrition expert Susan Roberts is skeptical.

Boston [08.27.07] Obesity affects millions of Americans, children and adults alike, and carries serious health risks. But what if there was a simple solution, one that could be applied in infancy? A group of British researchers are working on a hormone-enhanced baby formula that could change how and when the brain helps burn calories and stave off hunger. Some scientists, however, including Tufts' Susan Roberts, are wary of the consequences.

"My personal opinion is that this is a terrible idea," Roberts told Boston's FOX network affiliate, WFXT-TV (Ch. 25). According to Roberts, who is director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts' Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, "Leptin is a complex hormone. It's only recently been discovered. We don't probably know the half of what leptin does, so to start giving this to babies I think is really premature."

In the past, theories have pointed to two causes of obesity: a person's genetic predisposition towards overeating and their environment and lifestyle. According to The New York Times Magazine, "a new field called developmental programming maintains a third possibility: that obesity, like many aspects of our physiology, can be traced to the months just before and after birth, when the brain and other organs are still fine-tuning themselves."

These crucial months in a child's development could determine appetite and metabolism later in life, along with the number of sweat glands, reaction to stress, and other aspects of his health, according to the Times Magazine. Michael Cawthorne, director of metabolic research at the Clore Laboratory at Britain's University of Buckingham, told the newspaper that he believes that influencing the formation of a baby's metabolism could essentially make the child resistant to obesity later in life.

Roberts admits that leptin could be effective in treating obesity in the future, but cautions that it would be irresponsible to use it as a quick fix.

"It may work, it may be safe," she said on FOX 25 News. "But there's an equally good chance that it may be dangerous and it may not work. I think we're light years, 10, 20 years, from this being something we can think about for our own kids."

Experiments with lab rats have yielded some promising results, but consumption of leptin by humans-particularly children-could be detrimental to other areas of brain function, such as learning and memory.

''I'd be really hesitant to feed formula changed in this way to my own kid,'' Roberts told the Times Magazine. "It just makes my breath short to think of what such an intervention might do.''

Instead of the proposed baby formula, with its high level of risk, Roberts believes the best solution to the obesity problem is changing our habits.

"The environment is toxic," she warned on FOX 25 News, referring to the typical American household in which most children are raised. "One simple place to start: take a look at what's in your kitchen."

"We just put the stuff that's on the table in our mouths," she told FOX 25 News."If you change what's in your cupboards, change what's in your fridge, you can make quite a difference right there."

The debate over the leptin-enhanced formula is, at its core, a debate over what we would rather change: our unhealthy lifestyles or simply our appearance?Roberts hopes it's the former.

"It's incredibly hard for us to eat carefully [in America]. It's a struggle for all of us every day," she told FOX 25 News. "All we can do is help ourselves."

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