HEALTHY LIVING
03/27/2014 08:43 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

Does High Altitude Really Help You Lose Weight?

Kathrin Ziegler via Getty Images

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Is it true that being in high altitude makes you lose weight and speeds up your metabolism?

As Prince Harry recently demonstrated, climbing well above sea level can surely make you sick, with symptoms such as crippling headaches, nausea and even fainting (and, in some cases, altitude sickness can turn deadly). But could a stint high above sea level actually provide some health benefit?

Lose weight merely by heading for the hills: It sounds like a myth, but the truth is, altitude could be more ally than foe when it comes to helping the average person lose weight. Weight loss in the mountains has long been observed by researchers and alpinists alike.

A 2013 study found that Americans who live at sea-level are four to five times more likely to be obese as those who live in the highest altitude communities in Colorado -- even after they controlled for other factors like exercise level, socioeconomic status and family history.

What's more, a totally unrelated 2010 study showed that even if you don't live in a high-altitude area, simply going to one could lead to weight loss. A small group of 20 obese and sedentary men were brought to an elevation of 8,700 feet (the exact elevation of Zapaquirá, Colombia and more than 3,500 feet higher than Denver). They were permitted to eat as much as they wanted and weren't allowed to perform any exercise, aside from leisurely strolling. After a week, they'd lost an average of more than three pounds. A month later, after the men had returned to their low-lying communities, the group had maintained an average weight loss of two pounds.

Was their weight loss the result of a quickened metabolism? Yes, but that doesn't tell the whole story. As Wired reported, in addition to getting a revved up metabolism, the men experienced hunger and satiety differently up on high:

They may have felt less hungry, in part, because levels of leptin, the satiety hormone, surged during the stay, while grehlin, the hunger hormone, remained unchanged. Their metabolic rate also spiked, meaning they burned more calories than they usually did.

According to the research, the men ate an average of 730 fewer calories per day while up in the air and that shift in appetite remained after they came back down.

“What is nice about this paper, is that it clearly demonstrates that there’s a lasting effect of decreased caloric intake, that people eat less even a month after they come out of high altitude,” altitude expert and Massachusetts General Hospital anesthesiologist Kay Leissner told Wired at the time of the study's publication.

There's no denying that the low-oxygen environment of high altitude has some effect: As LiveScience points out, in vitro studies show that human cells produce more leptin (the hormone that helps you feel fuller) when exposed to air that replicates high-altitude.

That said, there are some limitations to the current research: The sample size of the controlled study was very small and involved only men. What's more, the study didn't show whether or not the men lost weight from muscle, fat or water loss. Ultimately, the experts urge caution: Obese people are more likely than their normal-weighted counterparts to experience altitude sickness and to suffer from cardiac events from the dip in oxygen.

Surely, there are easier and safer ways to lose three pounds.

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