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More Exercise: “Is it the only way to burn calories?”

Released: Monday, December 15, 2003

BATON ROUGE – Just in time for the holiday cooking season, scientists from across the nation and Europe gathered here to ask a simple question: “Is exercise the only sure-fire, natural way to burn off excess calories we normally consume?”

One scientific fact has been clear for a long time: when people exercise, they lose weight. But nutrition researchers have seen something else. They have witnessed some animals in the lab that refuse to gain weight, even when they suddenly start over-eating a diet rich in fat and carbohydrate. If the scientists can discover why, maybe humans will eventually enjoy the same results.

Our history, though, works against us. Seems the human race is internally wired to gain weight in times of plenty. That's because for centuries, our ancestors had no promise of enough to eat each day, and had to work hard all day long to gather what little they could. Survivors through time were those whose bodies naturally squeezed every morsel for energy. Their bodies were highly efficient, requiring a fraction of what we usually eat today to stay healthy.

By the end of the previous century, though, a problem occurred -- food became very plentiful in developing countries. Humans began to enjoy regular meals of greater and greater quantities and didn't have to work hard to get it. But the human body, still requiring very little food to survive, became overloaded. The result was easy to predict; humans started gaining weight.

What if, like in the laboratory animals, researchers can learn how to “turn off” the natural efficiency of the human body and “turn on” a bodily process to consume extra calories automatically, without increasing exercise? The idea is not to avoid exercise, but to aid many severely obese people who are physically unable to exercise sufficiently to lose weight.

“Obesity has become an epidemic in many areas, and obesity leads to diabetes,” said Dr. Les Kozak, a specialist in obesity, “The major goal of the obesity problem should be to avoid it from the beginning. However, we know the whole population of the world will never be able to exercise enough to use up the extra food we eat, so we'd like to know eventually how to turn on the ability internally to burn off calories without exercise.”

Kozak is a scientist with Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, and one of those who gathered at a special meeting to trade knowledge on the subject of thermogenesis – the normal processes within us that cause body heat. It's the same heat we measure by placing a thermometer under our tongue. The goal is to harness these heat-making processes to burn off excess calories and reduce obesity.

Called the first meeting of its kind in a decade, nationally and internationally renowned obesity researchers met here to compare work, theories and knowledge and how they might step up thermogenesis in humans. Kozak and Dr. Phil Brantley of the Pennington Center organized the symposium, in which each presenter was encouraged to bring a guest researcher to offer supporting or alternative points of view. The result was a very high level brainstorming session.

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The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the causes of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. Itis a campus of the Louisiana State University System and conducts basic, clinical and population research. The research enterprise at the Center includes approximately 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who comprise a network of 50 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dieticians, and support personnel, and 19 highly specialized core service facilities.  The Center's more than 500 employees perform research activities in state-of-the-art facilities on the 234-acre campus located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.