When 24 volunteers sat down for a buffet lunch, they knew every calorie would be counted. But they didn't know whether researchers gave them an extra dose of a hormone that curbs the appetite.
The results showed that the hormone worked, telling their brain that they were full and cutting their appetite by nearly a third.
And it worked equally well in the overweight, giving a boost to the hormone as a potential new treatment for obesity.
``Therapeutically, this could be a rather good way forward,'' said Dr. Stephen R. Bloom, one of the researchers at Imperial College London.
Bloom and his colleagues had previously shown that the hormone, PYY3-36, could curb the appetites of lean people. But there were doubts that it would work in the obese people because studies of another appetite-suppressing hormone had proved disappointing.
In the study, both obese and lean people ate about 30 percent less after they were given a dose of PYY. The research also showed lower natural levels of PYY in the obese, which may explain why they are hungrier and overeat, Bloom said.
The findings are in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
Bloom said long-term use of the hormone would have to be studied before it could be developed into a treatment for obesity that would consist of injections given before meals.
``We haven't yet shown you get actual weight reduction. We've only shown you eat less,'' Bloom said.
The findings could also point to a more natural treatment for obesity: Bloom said a high-fiber diet is believed to boost the body's production of PYY.
The research is ``a hopeful step in the right direction,'' said obesity researcher Dr. David E. Cummings of the University of Washington in Seattle. ``But there's a fairly large difference between reducing food intake for one meal and actual weight loss.''
The PYY hormone, one of a number of hormones that stimulate or suppress hunger, is released by the gut as you eat. It tells the part of the brain that controls appetite when you are full.
Sixty percent of Americans are obese or overweight, and obesity contributes to about 300,000 deaths a year, according to government estimates.
Dr. Rudolph L. Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University in New York, said it is unlikely that PYY alone will turn out to be the ``magic bullet'' against obesity, but it may prove useful in combination with other drugs. He said the body has backup systems that kick in to resist the loss of body fat _ the reason so many people who lose weight gain it back.
``We can't fool Mother Nature yet,'' he said.
Currently, there are only a few prescription weight-control drugs, and they produce only modest weight loss. They work by suppressing the appetite through a brain chemical or by blocking fat from being absorbed.
The 12 obese and 12 lean people in the British study ate two meals, once after an intravenous dose of synthetic PYY and once after getting a harmless saline solution.
After the PYY dose, the obese ate 30 percent fewer calories than they did after the dummy solution. The lean people ate 31 percent less. The PYY continued to curb their appetites for 12 hours, but didn't affect their food consumption from 12 hours to 24 hours after the infusion, the researchers reported.
Without the extra dose, PYY levels were lower in the obese participants than in the lean, but the researchers said it is not known whether that is a cause of obesity or a consequence.
``If it's a consequence of obesity, it would explain why once people become overweight, it is very difficult for them to reverse it,'' Bloom said. ``They don't feel as feel as full after food as normal people do as a result of their obesity.''