Season 39 Episode 3


Aired Tuesday 9:00 PM Jan 24, 2002 on BBC Two
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Episode Summary

In this episode, Horizon reports on a new epidemic sweeping the world. It's been silently growing over the last few decades - only now is it reaching dramatic proportions. If current trends continue, more than one quarter of British adults will have this disease by the year 2010. This new epidemic is obesity. Scientists have recently made significant discoveries, which could lead to a drug treatment for obesity. In the meantime, until the drugs are developed, what should we do to keep off the pounds? One thing is certain. Willpower alone won't stop the epidemic of obesity; however, new research suggests there may be an easier way to fight the flab than joining the gym.

The metabolic myth
Meet the Padded Lilies, a troupe of obese water ballet dancers who insist it is impossible to change our natural weight. They say they are born with a slow metabolic rate that has made them fat. But scientists now know that fat people actually have a faster metabolic rate. The Padded Lilies' suspicion that there is something wrong with their biology may well be true... but not in the way they thought.

In 1994, research into a fat mouse was the starting point for a revolution in the science of obesity. The obese mouse was missing a hormone called leptin, which turns off the feelings of hunger. Wall Street went mad and the patent for leptin was purchased by a biotechnology company for millions of dollars. It seemed that at last a quick fix for obesity had been found. However, researchers quickly discovered that fat people had lots of leptin. There seemed to be no connection between the fat mice and obesity in humans.

A need to feed
Then four years ago at Cambridge University, a young researcher, examined the blood of two young children who were so obese they could hardly walk and were confined to wheelchairs. She discovered these children, just like the mouse, didn't have the genetic information to make leptin and so could not suppress their appetites.

She had for the first time ever identified human beings who were obese because of a genetic error and not because they didn't have the willpower to control their desire for food. In the last few years, research into obesity has snowballed and scientists around the world have begun to explore the area of genetic human obesity.

Dr John Clapham is tackling the problem of obesity from another angle, by speeding up metabolism. Based in a top secret lab he has genetically manipulated a mouse that we all want to be. It can eat huge amounts of food yet, because it has an unnaturally high metabolism, it can't put on weight. This cutting edge science could lead to another target for the battle against obesity.

Everyday activity
However, we don't yet have this miracle treatment, so what can we do in the meantime? Dr James Levine has come up with an extraordinary idea. His study suggests there may be a way to shed those pounds without taking drugs or even joining a gym. He has found that people who fidget find it very difficult to put on weight. So we don't necessarily need exercise, we simply need to up the pace of our lives; walk rather than drive, climb the stairs rather than take the lift, don't sit still: fidget. All this should help us keep the calories at bay.moreless

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