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Diet alone will not likely lead to significant weight loss

Newly-published research by scientists at Oregon Health & Science University demonstrates that simply reducing caloric intake is not enough to promote significant weight loss.

This appears to be due to a natural compensatory mechanism that reduces a person's physical activity in response to a reduction in calories. The research is published in the April edition of the American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology.

"In the midst of America's obesity epidemic, physicians frequently advise their patients to reduce the number of calories they are consuming on a daily basis. This research shows that simply dieting will not likely cause substantial weight loss. Instead, diet and exercise must be combined to achieve this goal," explained Judy Cameron Ph.D., a senior scientist at OHSU's Oregon National Primate Research Center, and a professor of behavioral neuroscience and obstetrics & gynecology in the OHSU School of Medicine, as well as a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

To conduct the research, Cameron and OHSU post-doctoral fellow Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D., studied 18 female rhesus macaque monkeys at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. The monkeys were placed on a high-fat diet for several years. They were then returned to a lower-fat diet (standard monkey food) with a 30 percent reduction in calories. For a one-month period, the monkeys' weight and activity levels were closely tracked. Activity was tracked through the use of an activity monitor worn on a collar.

"Surprisingly, there was no significant weight loss at the end of the month," explained Sullivan. "However, there was a significant change in the activity levels for these monkeys. Naturally occurring levels of physical activity for the animals began to diminish soon after the reduced-calorie diet began. When caloric intake was further reduced in a second month, physical activity in the monkeys diminished even further."

A comparison group of three monkeys was fed a normal monkey diet and was trained to exercise for one hour daily on a treadmill. This comparison group did lose weight.

"This study demonstrates that there is a natural body mechanism which conserves energy in response to a reduction in calories. Food is not always plentiful for humans and animals and the body seems to have developed a strategy for responding to these fluctuations," added Cameron. "These findings will assist medical professionals in advising their patients. It may also impact the development of community interventions to battle the childhood obesity epidemic and lead to programs that emphasize both diet and exercise."

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.


The ONPRC is a registered research institution, inspected regularly by the United States Department of Agriculture. It operates in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and has an assurance of regulatory compliance on file with the National Institutes of Health. The ONPRC also participates in the voluntary accreditation program overseen by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC).

About OHSU

Oregon Health & Science University is the state's only health and research university, and Oregon's only academic health center. OHSU is Portland's largest employer and the fourth largest in Oregon (excluding government). OHSU's size contributes to its ability to provide many services and community support activities not found anywhere else in the state. It serves patients from every corner of the state, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3,400 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to every county in the state.

Jim Newman | EurekAlert!
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