How a WA-designed breath test can help you lose weight
A few weeks ago I entered a nondescript commercial building above Baldivis’ high street, shoved a tube in my mouth and breathed through it for five minutes.
This wasn’t a whipping cream gas dispenser or any other drug-related apparatus; in fact, at the end of the ‘session’ my life was on a healthier trajectory.
I may look dead but I’m actually concentrating really hard on breathing.Credit:Hamish Hastie
That tube was connected to a machine monitoring the carbon dioxide and oxygen output of my breath to determine how my metabolism was working.
Why would I need to do this? Well, since 2010, I’ve been stringently carb-loading to fuel my rugby career.
The only problem is, I stopped playing rugby in 2015 and now you need binoculars just to see my BMI dot.
I’m sick of breathing heavily when I do my shoelaces up, so I wanted the data to get a precise idea of what I’m dealing with as I attempt to shift some heft. Enter WA’s Metabolic Health Solutions.
Exercise physiologist Kirsty Woods invovted me to their clinic, put a peg on my nose and placed me on the end of their ECAL machine; an Australian-designed calorimeter no bigger than a box of cereal the company developed as part of the global enlightenment around human weight issues.
Right now the most precise way to determine someone’s metabolic rate is by putting them in one of the world’s 30 or so ‘metabolic chambers’; small sealed rooms that allow scientists to analyse the composition of air exhaled over a 24-hour period in a process called ‘direct calorimetry’.
The data is invaluable in assessing metabolism. It can unlock performance for athletes or identify missteps taken by those wanting to lose weight.
Unfortunately the chambers are expensive and have only been accessible to elite athletes. Even smaller ‘indirect’ calorimetry methods require patients to wear an enormous clear bubble over their head while they’re hooked up to complex machines.
While it can never provide the same pinpoint accuracy of the ‘gold standard’ direct calorimetry, the ECAL is accurate enough to give health professionals a solid idea of how a patient’s metabolism is working.
Member for Nedlands Bill Marmion undergoing the assessment.
“The data provides key information including metabolic rate, fat burning and efficiency to validate and refine interventions, motivate patients and ultimately remove the guesswork currently involved with weight loss,” Ms Woods said.
“The software, protocols and ease of use means myself and other practitioners can focus on the client and outcomes, as opposed to the lengthy process of calibration, testing and data interpretation.
“It doesn't really matter what the weight loss program is, they all tend to focus on energy in versus energy out, and don't take into account the individual’s metabolic health, which is the key driver behind a range of common metabolic disorders which affect one in two Australians.
“Understanding how your metabolism is functioning is key to managing these conditions, after all you can't manage what you don't measure.”
The machine doesn’t suck out the fat; rather, it gives patients data about the type of fuel they're using to generate energy and help them avoid weight loss programs that don’t suit their bodies.
Ms Woods said people generally came to the clinic after struggling with yo-yo dieting for years, or while considering surgery, and they had seen great results.
“People have been getting normal liver results for the first time in 10 years, reducing and ceasing medications for diabetes and blood pressure, and falling pregnant naturally after failed IVF attempts,” she said.
MHS boasts the English Institute of Sport and UK's NHS as clients and the company is thinking even bigger.
MHS chief executive John Wright said there was a potentially enormous market for the ECAL for weight management, chronic diseases, sport and performance, and healthy ageing.
“The mission for MHS is to test the world’s metabolism,” he said.
“Our vision to do this is called ENABLE, a digital health platform, combining ECAL and other class-leading technologies with a digital health management system, designed to support the client and clinician.”
A low-carb wake up call in weight loss
MHS’s business is based on a wider awakening across medicine, government and the community at the complexity of weight loss, importance of avoiding processed foods, and benefits of low-calorie and low-carb eating.
WA’s Education and Health Standing Committee recently looked at how type 2 diabetes was being managed in the state and announced some worrying findings.
The committee said despite growing evidence about low-calorie and low-carbohydrate diets being effective ways of managing and even reversing type 2 diabetes, WA had still not endorsed them.
Type 2 diabetes costs the state about $1 billion a year and the CSIRO has recommended a low-carb diet to patients.
In a paradoxical twist highlighting the confusion of the system, the committee found WA’s Department of Health refers diabetes patients to Diabetes WA for diet advice, who then refer patients to the federal government’s Australian Dietary Guidelines.
These guidelines have been rejected by the by the department as unsuitable for people with type 2 diabetes.
Low carb diets are emerging as weapons against diabetes.Credit:Shutterstock
The committee has recommended the department investigate how to make the CSIRO diet more readily available to WA doctors treating type 2 and pre-diabetes.
WA GP Dr Joe Kosterich agrees.
“The evidence is clear as day,” he said. “This is human physiology 101 if you look at how fats and protein and carbohydrates are metabolised in the body.
“This is not radical stuff. This is eating meat, fish, chicken, vegetables, nuts, seeds, berries, a little bit of fruit and drinking mainly water.
“Whenever the government gets reports like this it takes them a little while but they should have a massive interest in this because apart from the improvements in human health and wellbeing, there are huge savings to be made in the health system.
“It is absolutely time for health bodies, government and departments to basically stop pretending and accept that the advice they have given, while maybe well intended, has been wrong. We’re not going to blame anybody but we need to change.”
Knowledge is power
Nearing the end of my session the ECAL started beeping and I was asked to remove the saliva-covered tube.
The poor machine had taken the full brunt of my throaty breaths for a full five minutes and a computer was now crunching the data.
Ms Woods tapped away at the keyboard and printed out a sheet of paper, which I grudgingly took from her. I’ve always been afraid of maths; this time was no different.
The damage wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. My metabolism was in a normal range for someone my age. Fantastic. By my oxygen output was higher than normal.
This means my body isn’t using the oxygen I’m breathing in efficiently.
Ms Woods deduced my mitochondria – the powerhouse of my body’s cells that produce energy – weren’t working optimally.
They get a little slack when you don’t call on them as much as you should and this can impede my general health and make losing weight harder.
She gave me a list of foods to eat that will make losing weight easier given my current metabolic state. Lo and behold, it featured mostly low-carb, unprocessed foods.
She also suggested I do some strength work, which can improve mitochondrial function and help the body burn oxygen better.
I’ve always known I needed to “eat better and exercise more”, but it’s always just been a throwaway line.
To have stark data detailing how inefficiently my body was running was sobering.
Alas, data won’t cook me healthy dinners or drag me out of bed to exercise; my old foes willpower and motivation will still have to be whipped into action.
But knowledge is power and now my weight loss efforts are more precise than my Malteaser-to-mouth throw.
The reporter undertook the ECAL test at the invite of MHS.
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