Is it possible to “hack” your metabolism? That’s what Lumen, a new hand-held metabolic device and app, promises to do.
The idea is this: Several times a day, you breathe into Lumen to see if you’re burning mostly fat or mostly carbs, which it reads by measuring your CO2 levels. The breathalyzer is connected to an app that gives you your results. It can then suggest things you can do to move into the elusive “fat-burning zone.”
We all want to be in the fat-burning zone, of course. But why exactly?
“There can be a variety of reasons for this,” says Rebecca Christensen, a Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “There is some research that shows that individuals who have a lower RER (the respiratory exchange ratio) have better metabolic health. And so, the lower it is, the more you are in the fat-burning zone.”
The RER is exactly what Lumen, a “metabolic fuel utilization breathalyzer,” measures. And it’s designed to help people improve their metabolic health. One in five Canadians suffers from metabolic syndrome, which means you have three of the following five problems — hypertension, high triglycerides, high blood sugar, lower “good” cholesterol and large waist circumference.
What most people looking at Lumen probably want to know, though, is, whether or not spending more time in fat-burning mode can fix the last problem on the list.
“The hope would be that your body would eventually use your own stores of fat to burn,” says Christensen.
Sounds simple enough. Our metabolism, though, is a complicated system that has some pretty sophisticated firewalls designed to thwart hacking attempts. Last year, Dr. Arya Sharma, professor of medicine at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, told me that there isn’t that much that you can do to change your resting metabolic rate (a.k.a. basal metabolic rate). Building muscle does have a positive effect but, for most of us, not enough to make a serious difference. So that leaves diet and exercise — two areas that Lumen promises to help with.
Lumen sent me one of its breathalyzers a few months back and, since then, I’ve been playing around with it. At the outset, I noted that the app didn’t have the resources that some of the other weight-loss platforms have. In the space of four months, it’s filled in the gaps with recipes, diet plans, lessons on how to breathe, eating psychology tips and tricks and lessons on the importance of sleep.
It’s become pretty comprehensive, which is good, given that dietitians are increasingly looking beyond diet to address metabolic health.
“If I had to name the biggest contributors to poor metabolic health, one of them would be sleep hygiene,” explains Leigh Merotto, a registered dietitian with a practice in Toronto. “If you’re not sleeping enough and getting enough good quality sleep, that increases cortisol levels which can affect your insulin sensitivity and your hunger and fullness cues.”
Unfortunately, the second biggest contributor that Merotto thinks is damaging our metabolic health is diet culture.
“What we know with weight loss is that people tend to gain it back and they gain more back,” says Merotto. “That cycle, over time, is known as ‘yo-yo dieting’ or ‘weight cycling’ and will actually worsen insulin sensitivity and contribute to things like diabetes and other metabolic health concerns.”
As Dr. Sharma told me last year, every time we lose a lot of weight, our metabolism slows down. That’s part of our metabolism’s anti-hacking security system.
None of this is to suggest that we can’t improve our metabolic health. Christensen says a weight loss of as little as five per cent is associated with better blood pressure, glycemic control and lipids control (cholesterol) — important metabolic health markers.
“There are a lot of different ways that you can address metabolic health, especially on an individual level,” she says, “I like to think that lifestyle modification is one of the cornerstones of all metabolic treatment, which is really moving a little bit more, and maybe eating a little bit less or eating a little bit more of certain types of food.”
And that’s exactly where Lumen comes in. If I do a morning read and I get a middling score, it asks me what I did the day before. What time was dinner? How many servings of carbs? Any late-night snacks? Any alcohol? And then it offers up a guess as to why I’m not in the fat-burning zone. (Spoiler alert: It’s usually the wine I had with dinner.)
Midday, when I’m back into the fat-burning zone, Lumen tells me to eat non-starchy vegetables. Sometimes it tells me I could eat a carb before I go for a walk.
Could I have figured these things out myself? Probably. But I’ve spent the past few years talking to a lot of smart people in nutrition sciences as a part of my work life. For those who want help and information, I can genuinely see how Lumen could be a valuable educational tool that could, in the long run, help people transition into lifestyle modification.
That said, if people use the device as a way to lose a lot of weight quickly, well, we know how that turns out. So, as with anything, anyone considering Lumen should speak with their doctor first and also think carefully about what their goals really are.
“We still think weight is at the root of the issue,” says Merotto, “but focusing on consistency and making lifestyle changes that are going to support your metabolic health, like better sleep, managing stress levels and, yes, movement and diet, is where we have to focus our energy.
She continues: “We need to take the emphasis away from the numbers on the scale and stop thinking of weight loss as the primary goal.”
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