It’s a new year again, and just like the past five new years, you’ve vowed to get in shape. This is it. This is the time you’re really going to do it. Right?
Whether or not you stick to it this time, the whole thing is all pretty tiring. Year after year, we make the same resolutions, mostly revolving around diet and exercise. But will it always be this way? Is humankind doomed to repeat this same cycle of failed fad diets and unused gym memberships forever, or will some future invention render both obsolete, finally freeing us from this pointless charade?
We’ve done a little digging to find out where we’re at with just about every “cure” for diet and exercise that awaits us in the future, to see how close we are to our dream that one day we can sit around stuffing our faces with chocolate-dipped whale blubber and still look like a hunk.
The Meal Replacement Pill
The science-fiction staple of an all-in-one food pill can trace its origins back to the 1893 World’s Fair, where a group of prominent thinkers speculated about what the future might hold. Similarly, American suffragette Mary Elizabeth Lease wrote about the creation of meal pills, claiming that by the year 1993, women would be freed from the constraints of the kitchen.
But it’s now 26 years since that deadline and there’s still no food pill. So where is it? Well, while we do have Soylent, space food and the emergency rations favored by survivalists, we’re still a long way off from getting an all-in-one food pill. The issue with food pills is caloric intake, which science has yet to figure out how to cram into a tiny pill — much less how to have it taste like a delicious three-course meal.
The Fat Transformer
White fat is the fat we all know about: The fat that makes you no longer able to fit into your favorite pair of jeans, that squishes together to form dad bod and double chins. But then there’s brown fat, the so-called good fat that’s found in places like our neck and shoulders and helps us to burn calories by generating heat.
Several studies are experimenting with ways to convert the white fat into “beige fat,” which operates pretty much like brown fat and would help with weight loss. Just last year, some major breakthroughs occurred in this area, with scientists at Washington University School of Medicine actually turning white fat into beige fat in mice, making them leaner. Additionally, at Purdue University, researchers were able to disrupt the signal between cells that would generate white fat; when interrupted, the fat turned brown.
Right now, all of this is still in the mouse-testing phase, but it’s some of the most promising research going in getting fat to work for us, instead of against us.
The Diabetes Cure
With a third of Americans currently obese, the development of Type-2 diabetes is pretty common. When someone develops diabetes, their body can no longer create a sufficient amount of insulin, the hormone that processes sugar in the body. But a recent breakthrough at the University of California had diabetic mice ingest a drug that allowed their chunky little mouse bodies to create insulin normally, essentially “curing” them of diabetes. While this development won’t stop people from becoming obese, it could help to mitigate the effects of being overweight if it ever hits the human market.
The Appetite Suppressant
More than a decade ago, the naturally occurring hormone leptin was discovered, bringing about a major breakthrough in weight-loss research. It was found that leptin suppressed appetite by making people feel full — the only problem was that since obese people develop a resistance to leptin, it renders it ineffective for them.
Now, though, another hormone — known as Peptide YY — is proving to be similarly effective at suppressing appetite. While human trials are still ongoing, there may be some promising news in the near future. There’s also Fexaramine — which makes people feel like they’ve had an “invisible meal” (sadly, this drug is still in its very early stages) — and Celastrol, another drug that’s still in trials, but which may increase the body’s sensitivity to leptin, making it a more effective treatment for obesity.
The Fat “Off Switch”
As mentioned earlier, when creating fat, the body either stores it (white) or burns it (brown). In obese people, however, this mechanism can be faulty, effectively leaving the fat-storing switch “on” all the time, turning all the fat into white fat. A couple years back, scientists discovered the precise brain mechanism that controls this, which may lead to some exciting developments in the future, perhaps even learning how to repair this broken switch. Sad trombone alert: They do warn that any human trials are a long way off.
The Exercise Pill
For those who are super busy — or just hate going to the gym — the ideal solution to their problems would be a simple pill that carries in it some or all of the benefits of exercise. While countless studies and trials are taking place all the time, three of the most promising were covered in The New Yorker last November.
One option is GW501516, a drug that tells the brain to burn fat the same way it would during a high-endurance exercise, without you having to lift a finger. Another is Compound 14, which fools cells into thinking they’re running out of energy, causing them to burn through more of the body’s fuel reserves. And the third was a hormone called irisin, which turns white fat into brown.
All of these drugs are still experimental, and it will be years, if ever, before they hit the market. For now, though, they represent the front line in the “exercise pill.”
The Muscle Stimulator
Remember those late-night commercials that showed someone strapping a padded belt over their abs, promising to give them a workout while watching Cheers reruns?
If you’ve noticed that those commercials aren’t really a thing anymore, that’s because they were deemed misleading by the FTC. The claim was that they’d tone you through electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), a practice that’s been going on for centuries. While EMS can’t replace real exercise, many do now use it in addition to a workout — especially in Europe — but the bad news is that it works by making it more difficult to exercise, working your muscles that much harder.
As for a totally independent muscle-zapping belt, it’s unlikely that will ever come to fruition.
The Human Genome Redesign
Perhaps our greatest hopes of all lie in the ongoing studies of the basic building blocks of a human being. In 2015, the most detailed understanding yet of the human genome was achieved thanks to more than 400 researchers in two dozen countries. Many of the studies focused on obesity in its myriad forms, which may lead to more personalized obesity treatments in the future.
All in all, though, we’ve got a long time to wait until we see any of these products on the market. So it looks like we’ll have at least another decade of unfortunate New Year’s resolutions. The good news is at least you won’t have to put any thought into your resolutions next year.