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Endangered Orangutans Could Provide Insight into Obesity and Eating Disorders

orangutan and eating disordersYou’ve probably heard more than once how similar humans are to primates, but a recent study of Indonesian orangutans conducted by an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers University has linked humans and primates in areas other than genetics. Studying the areas of obesity and eating disorders, Erin Vogel saw similarities in the orangutans’ survival tactics during times of food scarcity and the way human bodies behave during fad diets that propose high protein and low carbohydrate intake.

“There is such a large obesity epidemic today and yet we don’t really understand the basis of the obesity condition or how these high-protein or low-protein diets work…I think studying the diets of some of our closest living relatives, the great apes; may help us understand issues with our own modern day diets,” she said.

Unlike fad diets that promote the idea of high protein and low carbohydrate diets for weight loss, Vogel found that orangutans actually put on fat during period of high caloric and protein intake. Normally, orangutans survive solely on low-protein foods, such as fruits, and go through normal protein deprivation cycles when they can’t find food that they normally have available to them.

During these periods of protein limitations, orangutan biology goes through a shift where they metabolize fat reserves and muscle, much like what occurs during eating disorders such as anorexia. Fad diets that stress the importance of protein and deprivation of carbohydrates could actually be doing the opposite of dieters’ desired effect if these studies can be linked to humans.

After studying the apes over a five-year period, Vogel found that the orangutans’ bodies shifted so that they could survive long period without the supply of low-protein fruit that they normally have available. To keep from starving to death, the orangutans shifted their diet to include higher protein leaves and using energy from stored body fat. The similarities between these orangutans and those who suffer from anorexia, both experience the shift from metabolizing fat and muscle because of protein deficient diets, show one more commonality between humans and primates.

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