Through research performed at Montclair
State, Associate Professor Diana Thomas and her colleagues have proven
mathematically that increased exercise does not rev up the metabolism or ensure
weight loss; the only way to effectively lose weight is to simply eat less. Now
she is seeing the practical results of her equations.
“The question became, ‘Can we really help people
lose weight using mathematics?’” the director of the Center for Quantitative Obesity
Research at Montclair State says. And the answer, they found, is, “Yes.” The
mathematical model, developed in collaboration with a team of researchers and
mathematicians, could prove helpful in battling the obesity epidemic in the
United States and may even change the way people diet.
Thomas’ research on mathematical modeling of weight
has received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and helped
more than 70 study participants lose weight at the Pennington Biomedical Research
Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In one collaborative NIH-funded study at
Pennington Biomedical, patients who used Thomas’ model lost more than eight
percent of their body weight. “When they told me how well it worked, and how it
improved patients’ health, that’s what changed everything for me,” Thomas says.
Her energy balance equation calculates how
much, or how little, a dieter should eat to lose weight based on such factors
as height, weight, age and gender.
Counselors at Pennington Biomedical are then
able to adjust diet plans and behavior counseling accordingly and know for
certain whether participants are sticking with their diets, says Corby Martin, a
researcher at the center.
“Diana’s work is immensely significant,”
Martin says. “My research and our studies here are based on Diana’s work and
our collaboration with Montclair State University. It serves as a foundation
for our clinical trials and makes it easier for patients to follow their diets.
As participants begin using the calculator (available
links/), they plot their weight change on easy-to-read graphs that show a
“zone” or range that corresponds to the expected weight change according to
physiology. If participants closely follow their diet plans, their weight
should fall into the zone. The calculator also can help people set realistic
weight loss goals. By plugging in a dietary intake goal, they can see the
estimated weight changes over time.
It takes only a small adjustment to get back
in the zone, and as patients see they’re losing weight by adhering to their
diets, they become motivated to stay on track. “Compared to calorie counting,
this is much easier,” says Thomas.
Weight loss counselors at Pennington
Biomedical agree. “There’s something about being in the zone that motivates
them,” says Allison Davis, a counselor at Pennington Biomedical using the
model. “Participants really respond. I think it makes them feel more in control.
And I love being able to show them their personal graph that shows if they
stick to the program this is how much weight they will lose.”
Thomas and researchers at Pennington
Biomedical, Duke University, Maastricht University and the Technical University
of Lisbon also collaborated on another study that applied the first law of
thermodynamics to explain why exercising, while good for you, does little to
help you lose weight.
Again, mathematics proved the point. “If the
data is not telling you what you think it will, then your hypothesis is wrong.
Data doesn’t lie,” says Thomas. “We were trying to understand why people
weren’t losing weight if they said they were exercising and eating a certain amount.
The data shows that your metabolism doesn’t increase when you exercise.
Vigorous exercise makes you hungrier and you tend to eat more.”
Exercise does, however, make people feel and
look better. “But if you’re looking at exercise for weight control, forget it,”
she says. “If you work out very, very hard, everything is going to be against
you for weight loss.”
Montclair State and Pennington Biomedical’s
collaboration continues as they work together on a groundbreaking NIH study,
applying Thomas’ mathematical equation to pregnant women to help them gain the
optimum amount of weight during pregnancy and also to prevent diabetes through
weight loss in women who recently had gestational diabetes. The NIH funding for
the $3.5 million Pennington Biomedical study aims to improve outcomes for both
mother and baby.
Thomas’ passion for this research is rooted
in personal experience. While you would never guess it to look at her now, by
the end of her first pregnancy 12 years ago, she weighed in at 179 pounds. Then
she had to go about losing 70 pounds. Two years later, she began working on her
initial studies about fetal and maternal weight gain, and she kept her
subsequent pregnancy weight gain to the traditionally prescribed 25 pounds.
“This is very personal for me,” she says.
“I’m not the only woman who gained a lot of weight during pregnancy. I care a
lot about women’s health and was shocked to find that so many of the widely
publicized weight recommendations for pregnant women are outdated and often
based on conclusions from studies of men and non-pregnant women.”
The latest collaborative study with
Pennington Biomedical will involve more than 300 women, starting at the
beginning of their pregnancies and following them through delivery, giving them
guidelines for how much to eat and how much weight they should gain in each
trimester based on the math.
“We hope to be able to improve the mother and
the baby’s health in a way that will have impact in the long run,” Thomas says.
While Thomas originally thought she would be
a math professor, using mathematics to fight obesity and improve women’s health
has taken her career in a different direction, leading to speaking engagements and
media interest. She’s presented at the University of Alabama, George Mason
University and Rutgers University, as well as at conferences in New York and
Last year, the results of a study she
co-authored linking a decrease in workplace physical activity to the obesity
epidemic made it into The New York Times, USA Today and Shape magazine.
The online calculator for predicted weight
loss also has garnered some attention including another mention in The New
York Times, because it is designed so that anyone can plug in their numbers
and see what it will take to lose weight. Thomas’s team is also working on an
app for a handheld diet adherence calculator. “That way, people can check it
anytime, anywhere,” she says. “It eliminates the need for calorie counting.”
Montclair State’s collaboration with
Pennington Biomedical allows Thomas’ students to see how the science and math
they learn in the classroom have real-world applications.
“We train students in health-related fields to be part of a medical research team,” Thomas says. “That may mean hosting research visitors from around the world, writing grants and papers or directly working with patients.”