Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=166573
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Dayna Dion/MEDILL

After trying countless diets and visiting multiple doctors, Patti Peterson decided to take the breath test that promises to unlock the secret to weight loss. And she’s glad she did.


Trying to lose weight? Just breathe

by Dayna Dion
June 09, 2010


Learn more about the breath test

The breath test that measures metabolism is most often covered by insurance, said Hannah El-Amin, a registered dietitian. To learn more about it or make an appointment, call Northwestern Memorial's Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness at 312.926.3627.

Tips for speeding up your metabolism

In addition to knowing the exact number of calories you need to consume daily to manage your weight, there are other things you can do to keep your metabolism moving, said Hannah El-Amin, a registered dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness:

Avoid skipping meals: Eating three meals a day helps keep your metabolism primed to work at peak efficiency. You should also include a snack if your meals are more than 4-5 hours apart.  

  Pump up the cardiovascular exercise:  High intensity exercising has been shown to increase metabolism while you’re working out and for several hours thereafter.

  Weight train: Strength training can increase metabolism for several hours after the exercise session. Plus, training with weights increases muscle composition, which allows fat to burn faster.


There are 26,833 diet books for sale on Amazon.com. All of them promise to unlock the secret to weight loss. But it’s likely that none of them will. That’s because a weight loss book can’t measure your unique metabolic rate, and calculate the exact number of calories you need daily to lose weight.

But a simple, 10-minute breath test can. It's available at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness and involves plugging your nose and breathing into a tube. That’s it.

And the test often comes to a conclusion that runs counter to what most diet books say: eat more to lose more.

“Many times, patients think eating fewer calories will help them lose weight, when in fact, they may need to be eating more to speed up their metabolism,” said Hannah El-Amin, a registered dietitian at the hospital..

Patti Peterson was among the vast majority of dieters eating less to lose more. After giving up smoking and gaining 58 pounds, she tried countless diets, doctors and tests in a quest to find out why she wasn’t shedding weight.

After all, she had practically starved herself on Seattle Sutton’s 1,200 calorie a day diet, Weight Watchers and other programs.

“I was trying to stop the weight gain,” Peterson said. “But it just kept coming and coming and coming.”

Finally, her doctor recommended the breath test.

It measures your unique, resting metabolic rate–the number of calories your body burns when at rest. 

Based on your unique RMR, the test determines the exact number of calories needed daily to lose, maintain or even gain weight. 

And therein lies the key to success, El-Amin said.

“Programs like Seattle Sutton’s or Weight Watchers use their best estimate of what a person’s calorie needs are,” she said. “But that best estimate is often not accurate.”

That’s because diet recommendations are usually based on how many calories someone of your height, your weight and your age should require, El-Amin explained.

“We actually measure what you do require,” she continued.

Here’s how it’s done:  The process begins with 15-20 minutes of rest and relaxation. That’s to ensure an accurate reading of your resting metabolic rate. Then, you’ll simply breathe in and out of the resting metabolic device, a small tube, for 10 minutes. 

“At the end of that 10 minutes you know exactly what your calorie needs are,” El-Amin said.

As it turned out, Peterson needs about 1,600 calories a day to speed up her metabolism and lose weight, one-third more than the 1,200 calories a day she was consuming on the Seattle Sutton diet.

On 1,200 calories a day, Patti’s body was actually storing fat to survive, El-Amin said.

If you don’t consume enough calories, your body senses that it’s starving and will not break down fat,” she explained. “[Your body] holds on to the fat in order to protect itself.”

Although initially surprising, the results made sense to Peterson when she stopped to think about them.

“I was always confused,” she said. “Because I would be on a cruise and lose weight. Whenever I’m on vacation, I lose weight but eat more.”

Now it all makes sense, she said.

“This is a wake up call for me," she said. "That this is what I need to do."