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Jewish World Review Jan. 3, 2002 / 19 Teves, 5762

Dr. Ed Blonz

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Consumer Reports

"Thermogenic" weight loss -- DEAR DR. BLONZ: I expect that by the time you read this letter the holidays will have left their mark on my waistline. I want your take on a diet supplement that is safe, all-natural, and claims to use thermogenic action to burn fat while you sleep. Aside from your comments on the product, do you have any general advice to offer? - F.S., Kankakee, Ill.

Dear F.S.: This one is easy to handle -- no doubt much easier to deal with than the "handles" that are the cause of your concern. First, we all lose weight while we sleep. The only time we're not losing is when we are eating or drinking. The idea that a few pills can help you to drop a few sizes while you slumber sounds great in a sales pitch, but that's all it is, so don't be fooled.

Thermogenic (heat producing) refers to attempts to increase the basal metabolic rate (BMR). The BMR can be thought of as our caloric "cost of living." It's the amount of energy needed to keep our body "engine" at idle, and it adds up 24/7 for such things as breathing, maintaining body temperature and keeping the heart beating. This basal metabolism accounts for 50 percent to 70 percent of the energy we burn every day.

Supplements that promise thermogenic effects usually rely on stimulants. I see nothing safe about it. The all-natural descriptive is also a laugh. How natural can it be to walk around (or attempt to sleep!) while on stimulants? Such products do not increase your basal metabolic rate. All they do is jazz you up while the drugs are in your system. They can have dangerous side effects as well.

The way to increase your metabolic rate is through an activity program that increases the relative amount of muscle tissue in the body. We can understand that a car with an eight-cylinder engine burns more gas sitting at a stoplight than a four-cylinder car. It is the same way with the amount of muscles in the body.

Muscle is metabolically active; fat is not. Think of the benefits. First there is the burning of calories to fuel the activity. Then the body responds to new activity patterns by building more muscle to handle the new demand, which also takes energy. Then you have the increased muscle mass that raises your basal metabolic rate.

Here are some basic guidelines that can help regardless of what road you take. There is no magic ticket to weight loss. It helps to appreciate that obesity is rarely a disease of willful misconduct. That's too simplistic a way to view the condition that affects almost one out of every three adults and one in five children in the United States. Carrying around excess weight comes as a result of a complex combination involving genetics, diet, activity and one's psychological environment.

Motivation to change must come from within. Attempts to change one's body weight solely at the behest or friends or family are usually doomed to failure. While you may find a way to drop a few pounds, your chances for long-term success are only as good as your personal commitment.

It is essential that you pick a sensible target. It's well established that parental obesity plays a role in determining one's body type, so take a hard look at your other family members. Having a large-framed family doesn't mean you should abandon hope of losing weight, you can set realistic goals.

Your best approach is a long-term strategy, where changes are subtle and lasting instead of radical and short-lived. This gradual shift should not place the sole emphasis on reducing dietary calories - it must include an activity component. Activity burns calories, but it also checks the metabolic slowdown that can accompany weight-loss dieting.

Finally, it is important to realize that it probably took years of bad habits to gain the weight. Don't be fooled into thinking that there are magic products that can make it all go away overnight. The key goal should be the adoption of a healthier lifestyle, not merely weight loss. With conviction and good planning, results can be achieved. Regardless of where you end up weight-wise, your actions will result in a healthier you.

JWR contributor Ed Blonz, Ph.D., is a nutrition scientist and author of Power Nutrition and the "Your Personal Nutritionist" book series. Send questions to him by clicking here.


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© 2002, NEA