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Research shows how poor diet slows down metabolism

Findings could have implications for diabetes therapy

Numerous studies have taught us that poor diets and sedentary lifestyles are spurring an obesity epidemic in the western world.

Now new BYU biological research is showing for the first time how high-fat, high-sugar food causes our bodies to gain weight and develop diseases – at the cellular level.

BYU biologist Benjamin Bikman says a tiny lipid called ceramide is at the root of this pathway that disrupts our metabolism and leads to obesity.

“Ceramide forces the mitochondria in our cells to pull apart in distinct blobs as it accumulates,” Bikman said. “In so doing, the cell doesn’t operate as it is supposed to.”

Specifically, as ceramide alters the physical form of the mitochondria with muscle cells, it not only reduces the ability of the cells to respond to insulin and take up sugar from the blood, but it also alters how the cells can use both sugars and fats for fuel.  Ultimately, this disruption leads to high insulin in our blood, which drives fat mass development and slows down metabolism. 

Once Bikman and his students saw how ceramide was affecting cells, they decided to see what would happen if they tried to slow it down in lab experiments.

The team fed two sets of test animals a high-fat, high-sugar diet, but reduced the ceramide production in the second group by supplementing them with myriocin, a known ceramide inhibitor. At the end of the 12-week test period, the first group of animals predictably gained weight and became diabetic while the second group did not, despite consuming the same high-fat, high-sugar diet.

“If we can prevent this shape-changing effect from happening in the cells by stifling the ceramide, we can prevent insulin resistance,” said Melissa Smith, a PhD student in Bikman’s lab.

The research findings, published online in Biochemical Journal, have spurred Bikman’s team to look more seriously into potential therapies that target ceramide as a means to treating diseases such as Type II Diabetes.

In the meantime, the team will continue to study the effects of ceramide blocking with several additional studies already in the works.

“From a cellular perspective, ceramide may be both cause and consequence of obesity, “ Bikman said.  “Ceramide accumulates in the muscles with unhealthy living, not only linking lifestyle to weight gain, but also connecting weight gain to disease. But we’ve still got more questions that remain unanswered.”

Added Smith: “Though potential therapy resulting from this research is still distant, every little piece we can add to the puzzle helps.”


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  5/5/2015 6:04 PM by Sydney

I was looking into what exactly ceramides are and I found that they are actually really important to the skin. Phytoceramides have been being used as a supplement for skin care recently. I was wondering how and if this applies to any of the research supporting ceramides to be detrimental. If we inhibit them would it have negative effects?

Wonderful Professor
  11/1/2013 10:00 AM by Jennifer

Dr. Bikman is hands down one of my favorite professors at BYU. I had the opportunity to take his pathophysiology course last winter and was impressed by his teaching on a daily basis. The way that he presents the course material makes him so credible. He backs up EVERYTHING. If he is sharing his opinion, he is very quick to justify that it is his opinion. Wonderful professor and overall a great guy.

This man is going to be world-renowned someday due to his extensive research in obesity. Take his class while you have the chance!

Awesome Research
  10/24/2013 9:20 PM by Breanne

Bikman is Canadian, I'm Canadian, this research is awesome. Canadians rock!

So let's just eat myriocin!
  10/24/2013 12:09 PM by Lucas

If myriocin, the chemical they gave to the rats, inhibited the ceramide and kept them skinny, then theoretically we don't even NEED to diet- we can just eat some myriocin with each meal and never get fat! Somebody should market this!

Fantastic research
  10/18/2013 9:29 AM by Bryn

Thanks so much for sharing this insight into Dr. Bikman's research. This is really a concrete example of how BYU research can help support principles that we know already through gospel revelation. Thanks again.

  10/17/2013 9:10 PM by Bailey

Robert, if you have any questions about this study, I'm sure Dr. Bikman would LOVE to talk to you about it in more detail. I'm in his pathophysiology class right now, and he's an excellent resource and always backs up his information. He's a metabolism expert- especially in regards to obesity. Something he's taught and acknowledged repeatedly this semester is that fat alone isn't bad for you, (which it seems you agree on) and it's in fact good for you. It's the combination of fat and sugar that is detrimental. Again, he'd be able to discuss it more in depth with you.

Too Many Factors
  10/17/2013 12:16 PM by Robert

I'm willing to wager that if you put the animals on a low fat and high sugar diet, they would have the same problem. Sugar's the problem. Saturated fat is consistently blamed for health problems without the scientific evidence to back it up.

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BYU physiology and developmental biology professor Benjamin Bikman.

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Biology professor Benjamin Bikman with grad student Melissa Smith in his lab.

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Biology professor Benjamin Bikman with grad student Melissa Smith in his lab.

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BYU physiology and developmental biology professor Benjamin Bikman.
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