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Natural Fat Fighters? Scientists Take a Fresh Look at Old Remedies

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If you're trying to slim down, you've probably resigned yourself to the fact that you'll have to eat less and exercise more. But wouldn't it be great if there were some way to make weight loss a little easier?

Scientists around the world are working hard to create new drugs that can melt away body fat effortlessly. As the quest for revolutionary weight-loss medicines continues, many researchers are taking a new look at some old home remedies.

The results of a study published recently in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggest that ordinary vinegar — the kind used to make pickles and salad dressings — may help prevent weight gain and slow the accumulation of body fat.

Vinegar has been used as a folk medicine since ancient times to treat a variety of ailments. Recent research suggests that acetic acid, the primary component of vinegar, does have medicinal properties, including the ability to help control blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

To analyze the fat-fighting properties of vinegar, Japanese scientists fed laboratory mice a high-fat diet. Some of the mice were given plain water, while others received water plus acetic acid.

At the start of the 42-day experimental period, there was no significant difference in body weight among the mice. Throughout the study, the mice receiving the acetic acid consumed roughly the same number of calories as those receiving the plain water.

When the animals were weighed and measured at the end of the study, the researchers found that the mice on the high-fat diet plus acetic acid had significantly less body fat — up to 10 percent less — than those consuming the high-fat diet plus plain water.

Among the mice receiving the acetic acid, the researchers also noted significant increases in the expression of genes that control fatty acid oxidation. Based on their findings, the scientists concluded that vinegar can suppress the accumulation of body fat by activating genes responsible for fat breakdown.

Vinegar isn't the only natural fat fighter. In 2007, food scientists in Taiwan reported their findings that capsaicin, the compound that gives the hot pepper its tongue-searing kick, can reduce the growth of fat cells.

The researchers tested capsaicin's effect on cultures of immature fat cells, called pre-adipocytes.

They found that exposure to capsaicin kept the immature cells from filling with fat, thus preventing them from becoming full-fledged fat cells.

Capsaicin appears to trigger a biochemical signal that causes fat cells to undergo apoptosis, a mechanism by which cells self-destruct. The results of another animal study published in the Journal of Nutrition revealed that consumption of capsaicin can stimulate fat breakdown in the body.

For the study, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan fed rats a diet containing 30 percent lard. Some of the rats received capsaicin, while the others did not. Among the capsaicin-fed rats, scientists noted a lower percentage of body fat and significant increases in the activity of fat-burning enzymes.

Findings from other studies suggest that in addition to promoting fat loss, capsaicin can help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood.

As long as you're spicing up your diet and weight-loss routine with capsaicin, you might as well add a little curcumin, the bioactive component in turmeric and curry powder. The results of a recent animal study performed by Tufts University scientists suggest that consumption of curcumin can reduce the accumulation of body fat.

When the scientists fed mice a high-fat diet with or without curcumin for 12 weeks, the mice in the curcumin group gained less weight and body fat and had lower levels of blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol. In cell cultures, the scientists noted that curcumin reduced the growth of fat tissue by inhibiting the formation of new blood vessels, a vital process in the development of body fat.

To date, most scientific studies designed to measure the fat-burning potential of curcumin, capsaicin and vinegar have involved animals, rather than people. Some experts believe that human studies will yield similar results, but more research is needed to be certain.

Spicing up your favorite low-cal meals with a splash of vinegar, a dash of curry powder and a pinch of chili pepper can definitely add flavor to your food, and it might even help you lose weight. If you want to slim down even faster, your best bet is to stick with the tried and true: eat a little less and exercise a little more.

Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker and the author of several books, including "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her Website is www.rallieonhealth.com. To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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