Hungry for insights: unlocking protein’s part in the obesity epidemic

Researchers have uncovered surprising new links in the worldwide obesity epidemic by examining how our rapidly changing environment interacts with our appetite for protein.

Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, an explosion in ultraprocessed foods, and high protein diets in early life, such as baby formula, could all play a role in the world’s expanding waistline, according to research from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.

The new leads were uncovered by comparing what is known as the “protein leverage hypothesis” against our changing environment. The hypothesis, developed by researchers at the Charles Perkins Centre, identifies our appetite for protein as the driving force behind appetite in humans and numerous other animals.

“We have developed a new approach to obesity, which involves the use of geometry to understand nutrition,” says lead researcher Professor David Raubenheimer, the Leonard P Ullmann Chair in Nutritional Ecology at the Charles Perkins Centre.

“We’ve found that the protein leverage hypothesis can help to bring together separate factors that have been linked to obesity, such as formula feeding and shiftwork, and make new predictions about what is causing obesity now and what could exacerbate it in the future.”

Picasso’s role in research

The Leonard P Ullmann Chair in Nutritional Ecology is one of four chairs funded by the proceeds of the $20 million sale of a Picasso painting.

The painting was donated by an anonymous overseas visitor, who walked through the sandstone gates of the University carrying an unassuming package. Inside was the 1935 portrait by Picasso of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, entitled Jeune fille endormie.

The donor explained that the gift came with two conditions: that the donor remain anonymous, and that the painting be sold and the proceeds spent on scientific research.

The painting was auctioned in June 2011 at Christie’s in London at one of the biggest events on the international art calendar and fetched $20 million. Proceeds of the sale have created four endowed chairs across several disciplines within the University’s Charles Perkins Centre.

Since donating the Picasso to the University, the anonymous benefactor has made additional gifts of valuable jewellery and art, including bronzes by Ossip Zadkine. These have also been sold, with those funds supporting the University’s museums and collections in line with the donor’s wishes.