- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

Some health specialists say counting calories — and sticking to the numbers — isn’t enough to lose weight.

Dieters also should know their metabolic rate, the pace at which their bodies convert food into energy.

Knowing that figure can help them tailor their diets to meet their personal fitness and weight-loss goals.

The process is more complicated than it seems, a notion that grows cloudier because people often misunderstand just what metabolism means.

Dr. Alex Kor, team podiatrist for Bowie State University’s sports teams, says consumers “can get easily confused” about metabolism and its implications.

People sometimes impede their metabolism without realizing it.

“The average person who wants to lose weight thinks not eating breakfast is the best thing to do,” says Dr. Kor, who has a master’s degree in exercise physiology. “That’s slowing down your metabolism.”

The body’s metabolic rate quickens when it is digesting food, so eating many smaller meals a day is preferable to eating one or two big meals, he says.

It also helps when someone eats in harmony with his or her workout regimen.

“If you want to lose weight, ride a bicycle or spend 20 minutes on a treadmill before breakfast,” Dr. Kor says. The human body will begin burning fat immediately during a pre-breakfast workout because it has been using up excess food energy the previous night. If someone goes on a walk at the end of the day, “you have to go 20 minutes before you’re burning fat,” he says.

In the past, measuring someone’s resting metabolic rate meant submitting to an elaborate process, usually in a hospital setting, involving the measurement of heat released from a person’s body while he or she rested in a controlled environment.

The Sports Club/LA in Northwest is just one of many facilities nationwide that use the BodyGem device to measure metabolic rates. Members can blow into the BodyGem for five to 10 minutes, and it will print out the number of calories needed each day to keep one’s basic body functions going.

“It can be a real eye-opener for clients,” says Sports Club/LA dietitian Rebecca Mohning. “Some people think they only needed 1,200 calories when they really needed 1,500 [a day].”

Should a person take in less than the standard number of calories needed each day, the body will look to muscle as a source of energy, Mrs. Mohning says.

Heather Haugen, director of clinical affairs with HealtheTech, the company behind BodyGem, says roughly 70 percent of our total caloric intake is used to keep our basic systems working. The rest of the calories consumed help people do everything from walk up the stairs to jog a mile on the track.

Gauging one’s metabolic rate without any equipment can be a fool’s errand, Mrs. Haugen says.

“Most people who see me say you must have a really high metabolism because you’re not overweight, but it’s not true,” says Mrs. Haugen, who works out faithfully to retain her slender frame.

Numbers also can be deceiving when it comes to metabolic rates.

“If I gained 50 pounds more, my [metabolic] number would be higher,” she says. “My heart and lungs would have to work harder.”

That doesn’t mean gaining weight will improve one’s health; it just means it forces the body to work harder, but not hard enough to shed weight.

Sherri Giger, HealtheTech’s director of marketing, says knowing one’s metabolic rate is just an initial step toward meeting health goals.

Ms. Giger’s company offers software packages such as BalanceLog that help people assemble a fitness plan based on the results. People can enter their metabolic rate as well as their occupation, sleep habits and exercise regimen to give the computer the best portrait of how they live their lives. Others can turn to their doctor or personal trainer for follow-up information on the kind of workout and diet plan to follow.

A common theme touched on by dieters and some health experts is that people have a “set point,” a number or state of metabolism the body considers its natural standard, says Dr. Stacey Bell, a Boston-based “innovation scientist” of the research and development group IdeaSphere, the parent company of Twinlab supplements.

If that’s true, why are more and more Americans gaining so much weight? Dr. Bell asks.

The set-point concept, much like excuses built around metabolism, should be set aside in favor of healthy attitudes toward eating and physical fitness routines, she says.

Dieters and fitness enthusiasts also shouldn’t be as concerned about how the body’s metabolic rate slows with aging. That process begins because the body naturally begins losing muscle mass in one’s 30s, and less muscle mass equals a slower metabolism.

If people continue to weight-train as they age, their metabolic rates shouldn’t suffer any significant changes, she says.

Dr. Gabriel Uwaifo, senior endocrinologist with the Hyattsville-based Medstar Research Institute, points to “so-called primitive societies” as proof that age doesn’t guarantee a slower metabolism.

“In the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, those populations rarely change their metabolic rates,” Dr. Uwaifo says. “Adults who, as they age, maintain similar levels of physical activities and don’t have any other medical problems that impede their health don’t see much of a change in metabolic rates.”

Chronic medical conditions can modify one’s metabolism.

“Most cancers tend to increase metabolic rates,” he says. “The tumor is consuming a lot of calories.”

Dr. Uwaifo says some dieters mistakenly blame their weight problems on their sluggish metabolic rates.

“Very few people have a metabolic rate so low that it’s next to impossible for them to mind their weight,” he says.

Dr. Kor adds that knowing one’s metabolic information is helpful, but it can’t take the place of a solid understanding of proper nutrition and following an effective fitness program to achieve optimum health.

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