Where does the weight actually go when you lose it?

"Surfing Scientist" Ruben Meerman, who has recently had a paper published in the prestigious BMJ on where weight goes once we lose it.
"Surfing Scientist" Ruben Meerman, who has recently had a paper published in the prestigious BMJ on where weight goes once we lose it. David Stefanoff

KEEN to shift some of those kilos packed on during Christmas indulgence? A Bundaberg scientist has done the maths that shows there's a limit to how much and how quickly you can lose it - and he's attracting worldwide attention for his work. 

THIS is not your average amazing weight-loss story.

Ruben Meerman didn't tip the scales at a gazillion kilograms. There are no post-weight-loss photos holding his former fatty pants, into which he could now fit two of himself.

The 43-year-old simply lost 15kg in the first half of 2013 after being disturbed by his "fat gut" in a photo, gradually shedding the weight by counting kilojoules, setting a target and walking for an hour and a half each day.

Where Meerman's story differs is here: when he first hopped on the scales and noted his weight loss three months in, he did more than just celebrate the small achievement.

He asked himself the question: "Where does the weight actually go when you lose it?"

It wasn't an idle question for someone like Meerman, a physicist who did most of his growing up in Bundaberg and who later made a name for himself as an innovative touring science educator in schools and as an ABC TV and radio presenter known as the "Surfing Scientist".

"I was working on a kids' book - which I still haven't finished - and while I was reading up for that, I was reading about the digestive system, farts, poos, guts ... you know, all the stuff kids like," he said with a laugh.

"I realised none of the fat I was losing was coming out of my butt, but my lungs. And I thought that was the most interesting thing I'd read in ages, so I did a lot more reading about it."

Meerman's understanding of physics told him the weight couldn't just vanish. That would violate the Law of the Conservation of Mass (which says matter can't be created or destroyed, only transformed into other substances).

And it was well-established biochemistry that fat was broken down into carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) - even if he discovered with some alarm that the majority of health professionals and weight-loss practitioners believed it was "burnt off" as energy or heat.

But he wanted to determine what exact proportions of the mass in fat turned into CO2 and H2O, and even a string of biochemists couldn't help him do that.

"Before I came along with this maths, biochemists weren't really interested in the waste products of fat metabolism - just in the energy that comes out of it," Meerman said.

The photo that started it all ... Ruben Meerman saw his "fat gut" while surfing and decided he needed to drop some kilos.
The photo that started it all ... Ruben Meerman saw his "fat gut" while surfing and decided he needed to drop some kilos. Stuart Gibson

By July 13 he had nailed a complex calculation that said, in simple terms, 84% of fat became exhaled CO2 and 16% became water (for instance, urine, faeces, sweat, tears or other bodily fluids).

There was an important practical ramification of his calculations - for ordinary people who wanted to lose weight while still eating three meals daily, there was a limit to weight loss of about 70-100g per day, depending on kilojoule intake and physical activity.

"That's about half a kilo a week or 15kg in six months. Anybody attempting to lose more in that amount of time is destined to fail because you simply cannot do it," Meerman said.

Meerman presented his figures for the first time at a TEDx conference at Brisbane's QUT in August 2013, and in March last year, he filmed an episode for the ABC's Catalyst program focusing on his work.

That turned out to be fateful, because the episode brought him into contact with Professor Andrew Brown, Head of the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of NSW.

Prof Brown later suggested they work together to publish a peer-reviewed paper on what he thought was a fresh take on weight loss, and, as Meerman puts it, a scientific "bromance" blossomed.

It was much more than that. The pair's paper was accepted for publication in the prestigious BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) - not a bad first effort for someone who had largely built his reputation on being the dude in the boardshorts who blew stuff up.

Since the article was published just before Christmas, it has attracted interest from around the world, leaving Meerman a little overwhelmed by the attention but also feeling vindicated.

"There are so many people close to the weight-loss industry and the obesity crisis who are ignorant about the process of weight loss," he said.

"I've gone back to basic chemistry that was discovered 100 years ago, yet this is blowing people's minds."

"Surfing Scientist" Ruben Meerman with his high school science teacher, Peter Forbes, on a recent visit.
"Surfing Scientist" Ruben Meerman with his high school science teacher, Peter Forbes, on a recent visit. Contributed

The future looks bright for the affable physicist, who stoked his love for science while he was a student at Kepnock High School.

He's working towards both a book and a PhD focusing on his findings, and he has big plans to take on the bogus weight-loss industry and ensure his and Brown's work makes its way into the science curriculum.

"I really value teachers, but we have a science education crisis in Australia," Meerman said.

"Kids think it's boring and that breaks my heart, so I'm hoping this huge gap I've uncovered in basic science knowledge among health professionals and laypeople alike will make policy makers sit up and take notice.

"I do science demos for a living but I'm on a mission to put myself out of a job. Any teacher can do what I do and hopefully, one day, they all will."



  • Pure beef fat contains about 3700kJ/100g, while pure carbohydrate (such as white sugar) and pure protein contain about 1700kJ/100g.
  • Boiled potato contains about 250kJ/100g, but potato chips rocket up to 2300kJ/100g because of the fat in the manufacturing process.
  • You lose weight overnight, thanks mostly to the carbon dioxide you breathe out.
  • The average person excretes 33mg of carbon dioxide in every breath they exhale.



The two most common misconceptions about Meerman's work are:

1. You can lose weight just by breathing in and out a lot more.

Sadly, no. That would be hyperventilating, and you would probably faint.

That process of metabolising stored fat is actually a complex series of steps involving dozens of enzymes, which firstly liberate fat molecules stored away in fat cells and then eventually break it down into carbon dioxide and water - and things like exercise and, in turn, being hungry increase the production of those enzymes.

2. If fat is lost largely through exhaling carbon dioxide, losing weight must exacerbate global warming.

Again, no. The carbon dioxide (CO2) we breathe out is simply reformed at a molecular level from the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms that all make up the fat, protein and sugar we eat, and it was only consumed from plants and animals a short time ago.

Global warming happens when we unlock the carbon atoms stored in ancient fossilised forests, or huge deposits or dead phytoplankton buried deep underground. Left untouched, things such as coal and oil would remain inert. Dig it up and burn it, and that's when you release the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Topics:  editors picks weight loss

Workers of all ages getting a better chance

JOBS BOOST: Employment Minister Grace Grace with BMG staff Robbie Bartholdt and Rob Ellis.

More than 80 jobseekers get work under program

Hospital board chair Dominic Devine has stepped down

HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE: Wide Bay Health Chief Dominic Devine outside the doors of the original building of the Bundaberg Base Hospital. 
Photo: Zach Hogg / NewsMail

Deputy chair Barbara Hovard OAM will assume the role of acting chair

Unique approach sets our SES apart as state's best

TOP HONOURS: Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey with Bundaberg Regional SES Unit members Clint Lythall, Ray Smith, Jeff Green, Samantha Clough, Robert DeFlorian and Amanda Green.

Top honours for our SES volunteers

Local Partners

Unique approach sets our SES apart as state's best

THE region's nine SES groups and its volunteers have been recognised as the state's best at an awards ceremony in Brisbane.

Men's Shed to open soon

MEN'S SHED: Rob Miller and Col Driver at the new Gayndah Men's Shed.

The Gayndah Men's Shed is ready to open

Community garden set for Palmwoods

Kay Nixon at the Palmwoods Community Gardens will be hosting a launch day and inviting the ecommunity to come along and sign up.

Parcel of land to supply sustainable gardening for community

Former Split Enz front man Tim Finn finds new niche

Singer Tim Finn has written the music for theatre production Ladies in Black.

Musician finds his way to theatre

Taylor Swift files lawsuit over alleged groping

Taylor Swift source Bang

Swift has commenced legal action against a DJ over the incident

Kanye West threatens to boycott Grammys

West says he won't go to the Grammys if Frank Ocean's not nominated

Why this actress wasn't embarrassed by nude photo leak

Leslie Jones source Bang

'If you wanna see Leslie Jones naked, just ask,' she said

Dad's Army comic genius Jim Perry dies

Jimmy Perry, the creator of Dad's Army.

Dad's Army series captured all that British people savour

Check out some fashions from the Coast festival

FASHION: Ocean Zen range.

Images from the Sunshine Coast Fashion Festival show what's hot

Australian Survivor's magician Matt out of tricks

Australian Survivor contestant Matt Tarrant.

SHOW'S power couple looks unstoppable in race to the finish.

Hinterland horse stud passed in for $8.25 million

UNREAL: This Maleny estate is incredible.

12-bedroom hinterland horse stud still available

Hit songwriter's Noosa mansion on market

SPECIAL PLACE: The Cintamani estate is going to tender, marketed by Tom Offermann Real Estate.

Is this Queensland's best property?

Kiwi siblings snap up Dotcom mansion for $32.5m

The new toy company owners of the Coatesville mansion want replace any controversy with positivity and fun. Photo / Barfoot and Thompson

The trio paid $32.5 million for the property in June

New $200 million development will create 580 jobs

Cassie And Josh with baby Alfie and daughter Andee. They have bought at new Lennox Head development Epiq.

Majority of new positions will be given to Northern Rivers locals

Cherrabah's mega resort plans axed

PLANS for a massive development at Cherrabah have been scrapped.

What our mayor thinks of the new draft SEQPlan

The plan to use the innovative technology as part of the new Maroochydore CBD was cemented on site today when Mayor Mark Jamieson and Envac Asia Region president Chun Yong Ha formally signed the contract for the $20 million underground waste collection system.

New plan accommodates Sunshine Coast Council's vision for growth.