The compound resveratrol, which is present in red wine and gained fame for its supposed life-extending properties, might also help combat obesity, a new study in animals suggests.
The results show lemurs, members of the primate family, gained less weight during their seasonal fattening period when they consumed daily resveratrol supplements.
The drug also boosted the primates' metabolism and appeared to cause the animals to cut back their food at mealtime, factors that could have contributed to the anti-obesity effects.
Primates are considered a better model for what might happen in people than more distantly related animals, such as rats or mice. However, much more research is needed to determine whether such diet-inducing effects hold true for humans, the researchers say.
"The overall goal would be to develop some dietary supplementation or nutrient strategies that could interfere and decrease body mass gain and obesity," said study researcher Fabienne Aujard, of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, France. Also, understanding how resveratrol acts to prevent weight gain might shed light on general risk factors for obesity, Aujard said.
Previous studies suggest resveratrol could have health benefits, acting as an antioxidant that protects against cell damage. The compound has also been shown to increase the life spans of yeast, worms and flies.
And work in mice suggests it can ward off health problems that often come along with a high fat diet, including high blood sugar levels, and heart and liver problems.
To investigate resveratrol's impact on weight gain, Aujard and her colleagues fed six gray mouse lemurs daily doses of the compound. These animals, which weigh about 0.3 pounds (133 grams) on average, naturally put on grams in the winter time. In this way, lemurs more closely mimic what happens during real weight gain than would many rat and mice models, which have to be genetically altered to get fat.
After four weeks, the lemurs showed a significant reduction in their weight gain. They initially gained 1.2 grams per day, but dropped to around 0.5 grams per day by the end of the experiment.
In an obese person, this might translate to a 10 to 15 percent reduction in the amount of weight they put on, Aujard told LiveScience.
The lemurs also had a 29-percent increase in their resting metabolic rate, meaning they burned more energy without increasing their activity. They also had a 13-percent decrease in how much they ate, suggesting the compound could interfere with appetite. However, more research is needed to determine exactly how the drug might manipulate appetite, Aujard said.
The results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal BMC Physiology.