A close-up of a plant extract being placed on a microscope slideShare on Pinterest
Some plant extracts may have anti-obesity potential. Pansfun Images/Stocksy
  • New research in mice shows Mallotus furetianus (MFE),a tropical plant native to China, may help manage obesity.
  • Experts hypothesize that this plant extract works by regulating fat metabolism.
  • Further research is needed to determine if similar effects are present in human trials.

Approximately 4 out of 10 U.S. adults have obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a growing health crisis, researchers continue to explore new methods of treatment for obesity.

A new study conducted by the Graduate School of Human Life and Ecology at Osaka Metropolitan University demonstrated the potential antiobesity effects of Mallotus furetianus (MFE),a tropical plant native to China.

Researchers examined mice models of obesity who were given MFEextract.

They found that the extract suppressed an increase in body weight and adipose (fat) tissue weight. The results of this experiment also showed MFE-induced changes in the liver and adipose tissue.

Additionally, the research team discovered that with MFE extract, fat synthesis was hindered by “suppressing the expression of several transcription factors involved in adipocyte differentiation.”

“An epidemiological study reported that people in Hainan Island, who frequently consume Mallotus furetianus have the lowest obesity rate in China. Our research suggests the scientific basis supporting this epidemiological study,” Dr. Akiko Kojima-Yuasa, lead researcher and associate professor at the Graduate School of Human Life and Ecology of Osaka Metropolitan University, told Medical News Today.

The findings were published in the journal Food Science & Nutrition.

“Studies have revealed that the extract of Mallotus furetianus inhibits fat accumulation by controlling the expression of C/EBPbeta, a key transcription factor in fat synthesis within fat cells,” Dr. Kojima-Yuasa explained.

“Therefore, consuming Mallotus furetianus is believed to be beneficial for preventing and treating obesity,” she said.

There is some indication that this plant extract can affect the enzyme 5′ adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK), the master regulator of metabolism, Dr. Barry Sears, biochemist, told MNT.

“It is not unusual for phytochemicals in plants [to] activate metabolic pathways. This is because many phytochemicals can be metabolized into smaller phenolic compounds that can enter the bloodstream to affect critical regulators of cellular metabolism. The most likely cellular regulator under the control of phenolic metabolites is AMPK,” he said.

“Any activation of AMPK inhibits the synthesis of new fatty acids (i.e., lipogenesis, while simultaneously activating the burning of stored fat). If so, that would explain the effect of reducing obesity,” Dr. Sears continued.

There may be an evolutionary explanation as to why plants like Mallotus furetianus have anti-obesity effects.

“When people [have obesity] they are much more likely to store fat than metabolize fat,” said Dr. Mitchell Roslin, chief of bariatric and metabolic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital.

“It’s interesting that certain plants would make us metabolize [fat better], plants that are high in glucose, for example. The fruit sugar basically drives you to store fat for the time when foods are lean. Then, after that fast. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint.”

Researchers have discovered a wide variety of plants that may be beneficial in treating obesity. Research has shown that there are approximately 54 families of plants demonstrated to have anti-obesity properties.

Each plant family contains active phytochemical constituents, which may help manage obesity. Common mechanisms include lowering plasma lipid levels and pancreatic lipase activity, both of which have therapeutic potential against obesity.

Many countries in Asia are also home to several medicinal plants that have been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years.

In one review, researchers examined plants native to Asia, which included 12 different families of plants native to China, Korea, and Japan, as well as India, Malaysia, and Russia.

The compounds in these plants were flavonoids, including quercetin, catechin, rutin, and phenolic acids. Several different studies have demonstrated their anti-obesity effects with in vitro models.

Researchers noted that some Asian medicinal plants can prevent lipogenesis in 3T3-L1 cells, a mouse cell line often used to study obesity. In this cell line, researchers have also observed that extracts from these plants could decrease lipid accumulation inside cells and reduce the sizes and numbers of lipid droplets during the formation of fat cells. These mechanisms may help to manage obesity.

Although solutions such as extracts, foods, or traditional medicine may show promise in treating obesity, experts warn that they might not be enough on their own.

“There’s always this search for the magic pill. Even in the world of Ozempic and bariatric surgery, there has to be the understanding that these are tools that allow you to live a healthier lifestyle and be less hungry but they don’t make an unhealthy diet healthier,” Roslin explained.

While there are ways to suppress hunger, it’s still important to make healthy eating choices.

“When I see patients, I like to explain. My job is to try to give you a tool so that the basic energy regulatory portions of the brain (i.e. the drive to eat and have sex), those basic drives are minimized so that the more cerebral portion of your brain that says ‘I want to be healthy’ and ‘I want to lose weight’ is not overridden by the energy regulation system,” said Roslin.

“It doesn’t change the fact that you have to choose healthy foods and be active,” he continued.

According to Roslin, there are three approaches that can help with losing weight.

“First, minimize foods that contain simple carbs and starches and maximize protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs that have a lot of fiber. Second, count calories. And third, restrict the time you’re eating,” he said.

This study is just the beginning of understanding how MFE can help treat obesity.

Dr. Kojima-Yuasa said that for their next steps in research, she would like to verify whether similar effects are observed in humans.

However, “It is challenging to obtain materials for conducting human clinical trials and secure funding for the expenses related to the trials,” she added.

Dr. Sears, meanwhile, pointed out that human trials were next in order.

“[T]he results would have to be replicated in humans and compared to existing drugs. Thus, the likelihood of an extension of the results to treating human obesity is many decades off, especially since there is no driving force for human clinical studies because natural compounds can’t be patented,” he said.