It's hard to go a day without seeing a supplement that claims to help you shed pounds fast. This week, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies got involved in the conversation: They published a paper online in Nature Medicine saying they've created a pill that could trick our metabolism into thinking we've had an "imaginary meal."
The pill contains a compound called fexaramine that was able to activate farnesoid X receptors (FXR) in mice. Normally, these intestinal receptors switch on when we eat food, setting off a variety of reactions involved in digestion, production of bile acids, and fat storage. By mimicking that activity, fexaramine essentially tricked each mouse's metabolism into acting as if the mouse had eaten a meal. Obese mice that got the fexaramine treatment showed weight loss, decreased cholesterol, and lowered blood sugar, and some of their white fat turned into the easily-burned-off, brown-fat variety. All of this occurred without a change in appetite.
It's hard to hear this kind of thing and not think of fen-phen, the weight-loss drug popular in the '90s that proved to have dangerous side effects. But, the researchers say fexaramine's advantage is that it never actually gets into the bloodstream; it does its job in the intestines and then passes on. This could keep it from causing too many harmful side effects.
Of course, this is just a study in mice, so it's difficult to know if, how, and when the drug would be available for humans. The investigators say that way down the line, fexaramine could be an alternative to weight-loss surgery in extreme obesity cases. Ideally, this would be alongside diet and lifestyle changes — and a doctor's supervision, of course. In the meantime, keep in mind that diet drugs are a tricky area (as are supplements), and certainly don't work for everyone. Also, there is a growing amount of research that suggests we truly can be healthy at any size. If weight loss is a goal for you, it may be worth exploring other ways to be healthier before considering taking drugs.