Want to Lose Weight? Get High.

Recent research from the University of Munich suggests that life at high altitude may help obese people lose weight.  Researches collected 20 clinically obese men (average weight of 230 lbs), and invited them to a week-long retreat near the summit of Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany.  The men reached the 9000 foot high outpost by trolley and cable car.  The researchers gave them instructions to be no more active than usual, and they wore pedometers to ensure that they walked roughly the same number of steps.  Their weight, blood pressure, and BMI were measured.  Blood samples were taken and tested for their levels of ghrelin and leptin.  These men were then free to eat as much of whatever they liked, and their diet was recorded by the researchers.

After the week transpired, the 20 men were once again measured, poked, and prodded.  Overall, they ate 700 fewer calories a day.  On average, 3.3 lbs were shed per man, their blood pressure was lower, and their leptin level was higher.  Leptin is the hormone that regulates appetite and metabolism, so you would expect a decrease in caloric intake to correspond to a decrease in this hormone.  This makes perfect survival sense:  when you are starving your body slows down to conserve energy, and encourages you, through the sensation of hunger, to eat.  While it’s long been known that a loss of appetite is common at  high altitudes, this research highlights the role that leptin plays in keeping metabolism rates high despite the general decrease in food consumption.  Since that air contains less oxygen, the oxygen saturation of a fixed amount of blood decreases.  This means that the heart must pump more blood to get the same amount of oxygen.  Since the heart can only pump so much blood per beat, it must beat faster to compensate for this problem. It’s believed that this process results in the increase in leptin.  Interestingly, this does not occur in ancestral peoples indigenous to high altitudes, such as the Sherpa.

While this research has its flaws (there was no control group and it was a small sample size, amongst others) it is enough of a proof of concept to warrant additional study.  There is also strong anecdotal evidence to support the relationship between high elevation and weight loss.  Colorado is  the least obese state in the country.  Compare these maps, and the trend becomes even harder to ignore.

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~ by Wil Finley on February 5, 2010.

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