A PILL to prevent obesity could be on the horizon after scientists discovered exactly how protein triggers weight loss.

They hope by harnessing the power of protein-rich foods, the mainstay of the Atkins diet, they may be able to develop new drugs to cure or prevent obesity.

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The diet, favoured by celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Aniston, focuses on eating more beef, fish, milk and eggs.

They make us feel full, and mean we end up eating less as a result.

But tests on mice revealed it is a chemical produced in the gut while digesting these foods that trigger a change in hormone levels that control how hungry a person is.

The end-product – phenylalanine – boosts production of the ‘fullness” hormone, ghrelin, and reduces production of the “hunger” hormone, GLP-1.

In one experiment, researchers from Imperial College London gave 10 rats and mice a single dose of phenylalanine.

And in another, diet-induced obese mice, which are typically used as a model of human obesity, were given phenylalanine repeatedly over seven days.

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Both experiments compared their results to the same number of rodents that were not given phenylalanine.

The researchers found that the single-dose of phenylalanine reduced food intake, increased levels of GLP-1 and decreased levels of ghrelin.

Repeatedly doing so also caused weight loss in the obese mice.

The researchers also observed that the rats were moving around more, which might encourage them to lose weight.

Mariana Norton, from Imperial, said: “It highlights the potential use of phenylalanine to prevent or treat obesity.”

The findings are being presented today at the Society for Endocrinology annual conference in Brighton.