‘Cutting edge’ lab probes weight loss mysteries in children, adults in Canada

Researchers from McMaster University say their new Energy Lab is the first one in Canada focused on investigating the mysteries of weight loss in both children and adults, including why some people lose weight more easily than others, why most regain weight after they’ve lost it and how to improve the health of obese youth.

Using advanced technology, they said the lab measures the amount of calories study participants burn with greater precision.

“We have lots of lots of interesting questions we want to pursue,” said Gregory Steinberg, co-director of McMaster’s Centre for Metabolism, Obesity and Diabetes Research, where the Energy Lab is located, in Hamilton, Ont., in a phone interview with

“We’re interested to understand the biology around why some people gain more weight than others, even though they’re eating the same. …. And then that might lead to new potential ways to help people with obesity maintain their weight loss.”

To lose weight, people have to increase the number of calories they’re burning, or reduce the amount of food they consume, he explained.

Steinberg noted that people tend to gain back weight after they stop taking appetite-suppressing drugs like Ozempic since they seem to have little effect on energy burning.

“So one of the things we’re interested in is, is this due to a reduction in energy burning? And so can we potentially figure out ways to keep energy burning running high, so that people don’t gain back weight, whether they’re on a drug, or whether they’re following a diet or exercise program to help them maintain that weight loss more efficiently?”

McMaster established the Energy Lab in December 2022 because researchers want to better understand the impact of energy burning on human health. While scientists have gained more knowledge about this topic by studying animals, it’s harder to study it accurately in humans, said Dr. Katherine Morrison, professor at McMaster’s pediatrics department and co-director at the Centre for Metabolism, Obesity and Diabetes Research.


Morrison said the Energy Lab will measure energy expenditure or energy burning, which is the use of energy in the body to perform bodily functions, measured as calories. She explained the lab’s energy room will measure energy used to enable the body to function, energy used for movement and energy used to metabolize food after eating.

Canada is home to two other energy labs, Morrison notes, though the one at McMaster is unique.

“It’s the only one in Canada that’s focused on both children and adults, and one of the few in the world that will be studying energy expenditure in children,” she said in a phone interview with

In addition, McMaster said the Energy Lab uses “cutting-edge new technology” to measure energy expenditure that improves the accuracy and the precision of assessments.

People use oxygen to burn calories and produce carbon dioxide as a by-product of energy use, said Steinberg.

“And so the more oxygen you use, the more CO2 you produce, the more calories you’re burning,” he explained.

“So, one of the things we’re really interested in studying is why people’s calorie burning changes when they lose weight.”

A unique sensor measures the amount of oxygen a person uses and the amount of carbon dioxide produced in order to calculate the amount of energy they are using or calories they’re burning, said Steinberg.

The sensor allows study participants to stay in an extremely air-tight room, about the size of a small bedroom, with a bed, toilet, sink and chair so it can measure the energy they burn overnight, the researchers said. Study participants can also choose to stay there a shorter time, such as six hours.

“And we can also calculate what kind of calories they’re burning, whether they’re burning more fat, or more carbohydrates,” said Steinberg.

“We’ve been super impressed that we can really measure people’s energy use at a level of precision and accuracy that’s really been unparalleled. … We haven’t had this kind of equipment available to measure metabolism in humans. And that’s the big advance here.”


Moreover, Morrison said the lab is exploring questions such as the role of “pathways,” or mechanisms in the body, in weight gain.

As an example, she said when people eat something, a pathway is the process where signals from the gut go to the brain to tell people they’re full and don’t need to eat anymore.

“We’re very interested in pathways that contribute to how people put weight on and what happens when folks engage in weight management and they lose weight,” she said.

“It’s a pattern that often people experience over their lifetime where they lose weight and the next time it’s even harder to do so. And that’s not because they have anything in the psychology of the person. It’s very much because the fundamental pathways in your body have changed. And we’re trying to understand that change better.”

Nearly two in three adults and one in three children and youth are overweight or obese in Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Morrison noted that roughly 80 per cent of those children have health issues, many related to mental health and metabolic challenges, such as prediabetes and abnormalities in cholesterol levels, which can contribute to long-term health problems in adulthood. Children and adolescents also have a higher risk of developing heart attacks earlier than those who don’t have obesity.

Steinberg calls obesity an “epidemic,” causing diseases and major health-care expenditures, as well as being a major risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and many cancers.

For their first study, Morrison and her team are measuring how children aged nine to 17 burn their energy, how many calories they burn during the day and energy burning’s connections to health.

The Energy Lab will do a separate study on adults starting this year to examine how anti-obesity medications such as Ozempic influence energy burning.Morrison, a clinician and pediatrician, works with children who have obesity in her clinic at McMaster Children’s Hospital. She and other researchers at the Energy Lab are hoping to find solutions to common weight issues Canadians face.

“We work in a weight management environment and I see how hard these folks work to … change their behaviours because we haven’t had anything else to help them,” said Morrison. “And a very large proportion of these children have health issues associated with putting weight on easily so my task … is to try and find the best ways to help them.”


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