Inside The Fat Lab
(Or 7 New Ways To Lose 5kg)
Weight loss is not
a fair fight. While some shed kilos with apparent ease, others struggle to shift the needle at all. To find out why, Men’s Health checked into the world’s foremost obesity research lab to report from the front lines of the war on fat
Every week over the past several months, a new volunteer has checked into the metabolic ward of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana. Each stays for 24 days; he or she is fed meals that are meticulously measured so their calorie intake is less than what their body burns, guaranteeing weight loss.
Participants begin the study by spending three days locked inside one of Pennington’s four “metabolic chambers”. Dr Eric Ravussin, the white-coated concierge of these suites, compares them to “hotel rooms, but with a glass wall and precise sensors”. Here, every inhalation and exhalation is measured to assess each volunteer’s metabolic rate. The participants then spend 17 days on a “campus” – during which time their meals and exercise are logged – before returning to the chamber for a final evaluation. The aim is to record not only how much weight the subjects lose, but how their metabolic rates are affected by the process of cutting calories.
If losing weight is hard, keeping it off is even harder. Ravussin made headlines recently with a study revealing that extreme diets can cause a significant metabolic slowdown: in other words, to stay the same weight, a man who has dropped from 110kg to 90kg would have to eat far less than a man who has always weighed 90kg. “It’s as though people who lose weight are almost doomed to regain it,” says Ravussin.
There’s an old Indian parable in which blind men attempting to describe an elephant arrive at different conclusions, depending on whether they’re holding the trunk, tusk or tail. Obesity is similarly difficult to conceptualise in full. It results from a multitude of disparate, yet coexisting, factors – from metabolic issues and emotional problems to a lack of exercise and poor nutrition. Too often, these causes are studied in isolation. At Pennington, however, the researchers are attempting to gauge the whole elephant.
In its Ingestive Behavior, Weight Management and Health Promotion Laboratory, Dr Corby Martin analyses feeding studies investigating everything from how the pace of eating affects satiety to how group dynamics – the influence of your friends – impact upon your food choices. In another lab, Dr Owen Carmichael uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to better grasp cravings at a neurological level.
But how does all this apply to you? Drawing on Pennington’s collective expertise, MH has identified seven “fat types” – seven different ways in which your body and brain conspire to pack on the kilos. You may be predominantly one type; more likely, you may be a combination of several. Even leaner men will see something of themselves in these findings. This is truly the cutting edge.
A volunteer stands on a 3D body scanner, which uses the latest infrared imaging tech to calculate body fat