Digital Imaging & Testing for Fat Loss

You’ve been struggling to lose weight and it’s not for lack of trying. You eat healthy foods, work out regularly, and maybe try the latest diets. Paleo, your friends say. Wait, keto is the way to go. No, you should go vegan…

Maybe you’ve tried a few approaches, and still you struggle, and those numbers don’t budge. But if you’re just looking at the scale or the size tag on your pants, you’ve been looking at the wrong numbers. To understand what’s going on with your body – its composition, how it metabolizes nutrients, and what truly will work for you – you need to look at the science.

The Weight Management and Human Performance Laboratory at George Washington University helps clients achieve fat loss through high technology. Located at the Virginia Science and Technology Campus in Ashburn, the lab offers comprehensive testing to help clients achieve their weight and fitness goals. The individual results from tests, along with personalized nutrition planning, provide people with customized plans that they can stick to for life.

The lab has existed for about five years now. Most of its clients go for weight loss, and the majority are women age 30-60, but the clientele has included people as old as 77 and as young as 13.

“We have a lot of people, many of them women, who spent their entire life on some type of diet, most of them successful at losing weight but not at keeping it off,” says Todd Miller, Ph.D., the lab director and an associate professor at the school’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Many of their plans were highly restrictive or put them in too much of a caloric deficit, which is not sustainable.”

The key to losing weight is to consistently burn off more calories than you consume, without making you hungry (which eventually leads to failure with many “diets”). But how do you know what’s the right balance? This is where the lab comes in. With metabolism testing, body composition analysis, nutrition and dietary counseling, and VO2 testing (a measure of aerobic capacity), the lab team designs a plan specific to you.

“Everybody is different, not just in terms of their metabolism, but in their diet as it relates to culture, food preferences, intolerances, lifestyle, and more,” says Stephanie Mull, a registered dietitian at the lab, “so we don’t have a meal plan or issue a blanket program for all.”

Instead, the lab takes your specific test results, preferences, and restrictions – anything from food dislikes to time limits from your job – to find what will work for you. “We don’t tell people exactly what to eat, how much, or when,” Mull says. “What we do is figure out your daily calorie needs and the distribution [protein, fat, and carbohydrate percentages]. Then as long as they stay within those goals, clients have the liberty and flexibility to eat the foods they enjoy and still maintain muscle as they lose fat.”

They arrive at those numbers primarily through a DXA scan and resting metabolic rate (RMR) test. DXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) is a lowdose x-ray that measures body composition, or what percentage of your body is fat, muscle, or bone, for example. The RMR is the amount of energy (calories) a body burns while at rest, which accounts for approximately 70% of the body’s daily energy expenditure…basically, what you “burn off” just by being alive.

With these two numbers, the scientists and nutritionists at the lab determine what YOU need each day in terms of calories, and types of calories, to maintain or lose fat. The lab has made its type of testing more accessible to the public.

“We didn’t invent anything new in terms of being able to measure caloric intake and body composition,” Dr. Miller says, “but our profession — exercise physiologists, dieticians, and others – weren’t making it readily available, so we set out to change that.” With the information from the tests, plus the nutritional consultation, you learn what you should be eating, and how much of it, each day.

The food portion is important because diet is key to weight loss. “Diet is the driver,” Dr. Miller says, “and most people believe that exercise is the driver. Exercise will enhance the results of any program you’re undertaking, but it alone won’t make a big difference.” In fact, he notes, “the more activity somebody does, the more there’s a drive to eat, and that’s especially true with aerobic exercise.”

But what about the information that’s available to many people now through fitness trackers such as a FitBit, Apple Watch, or apps? Many such devices are “grossly inaccurate,” Dr. Miller notes, because they use “prediction equations” to yield your numbers such as calories burned, and these have technological limitations. While the devices are useful reminders to stay active and get your steps in – Dr. Miller himself wears a FitBit – they are not as accurate as the lab’s precise testing tailored to the individual.

The prediction equations that devices such as a FitBit use “can vary by 30-40 percent,” he says, and “what happens all too often with people tracking activity is that they overestimate the burn, and underestimate what they eat.” And those cardio machines at the gym that display your calories burned? They can be even more off the mark, he says.

Equally misunderstood is the amount of time it takes to lose actual fat, he says. “Fat loss, not weight loss, is a very slow process,” Dr. Miller says, “so when it’s rapid, much of it is water loss. We help manage clients’ expectations about how long it’s going to take to lose fat, what’s involved, and the need to find something sustainable.”

Sustainability is key to a nutrition plan, and so is looking at the bigger picture. For example, Dr. Miller notes that many clients who have struggled with weight loss bemoan the fact that they have been “eating healthy fats,” such as avocados. But high-fat, high-calorie avocados may not have the right mix of macronutrients for that person, based on her or his profile and lab results, Mull adds.

“They’re thinking it’s healthy instead of realizing they may be eating too much of it, based on philosophy versus science,” she says. “But if you’re eating too much fat and it’s keeping you fat, then it’s not healthy.”

Instead, with fine-tuning and custom plans, the Weight Management and Human Performance Laboratory helps clients find the ideal nutritional plan for them, one that they can stick to long-term and provides multiple benefits.

The lab looked at the results of 60 random clients over six months to gauge their body composition changes, finding an average fat (not just weight) loss of 14.6 pounds, with an average muscle gain of 2.9 pounds. “There is a notion that you can’t gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, but it can happen. That’s always our goal and this data proves it,” Mull says. “What we offer is a real solution to people who want to lose fat the scientific way. It works 100 percent of the time if you adhere to it. Adherence is key, and sustainability is key.”