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That Time I Was In a Childhood Weight Control Study

[Content note: discussion of extreme dieting]

The fat positive corner of the internet has been pretty rightfully up in arms about a weight control study taking place in Australia. The research — which is being conducted on adolescents — involves extremely low caloric intake and intermittent fasting.

These things are not at all ok to be doing to anyone, but especially children and teens.

The precise details of what they are making these kids — who are still growing and likely in the throes of puberty — do in the name of “health” are upsetting to me. I won’t go into the details but you can read more about it here.

All the talk about it has brought up some stuff for me — namely, how when I was a kid, I was a subject in one of these types of studies, and how I know it really messed up my relationship to food any my body for years.

Additionally, I believe I found a published paper based on the study in which I participated, and that dredged up a whole other group of feelings.

The Study

When I was about 10 or 11, my parents* and I joined a study that was being conducted at the University at Buffalo (which is where my dad worked at the time). The researcher, Leonard Epstein, was apparently pretty well-known in the field of trying to make fat kids not fat anymore, but that didn’t matter to me. Coming off my worst year of being bullied for my weight, I was drawn in by the promise that I could finally become thin and everything would be breezy.

That’s the expectation of every diet scam program, isn’t it? You’ll change the way you look, the clouds will part, angels will sing, and magically your life will be perfect. Fortunately I know better now, but I’ve fallen for that empty promise more times than I care to count.

I wasn’t privy to what the criteria were for selection into the study, but I’m told it was pretty competitive, and obviously my parents and I were selected. I’m sure we were given some sort of health evaluation, and we began.

The Program

Since this was nearly 25 years ago, my memory of everything we did isn’t perfect. I’ve pieced together a lot of it from my own recollections as well as conversations with my parents about what they remember.

I’m going to describe what I can recall in as straightforward a way as possible, and then afterward I’ll talk about the problems it caused me.

Intake

Our diet was severe and restrictive. It was based on the stoplight system, setting up categories based on traffic lights. Green meant the food was good for you, you should have a lot of it. Yellow meant it was OK but to consume in moderation. Red was to be avoided. We were allowed a certain number of “red” foods per week — I believe it was seven, but I could be wrong.

The caloric levels were horrifyingly low. Considering the participants included children who were not only still growing, but about to enter puberty, ANY restriction of fuel is horrifying. But we were restricted to a range of 900 to 1200 calories per day. For all of the other details of this program that have since gone fuzzy, those numbers are still burned into my brain. 

Output

Exercise was introduced to us after we had been on the diet for a little while. This was apparently the variable, according to the published article I found, though they didn’t tell us at the time. 

To be completely honest, I don’t remember the specifics of how we measured our exercise. However, I DO remember that I had to wear activity monitors at certain times, which was extremely embarrassing during ballet classes. Remember — this was 1995 or so. We didn’t have FitBits or Garmin watches that could track what we did inconspicuously. This was a big metal box attached to an elastic belt. Not great with a leotard.

Also, I couldn’t wear it at all while I was swimming, which was my sport of choice, so how accurate was it overall?

We had to do a specific amount of exercise per week. However it was measured, there was a definite minimum. And it had to be on top of anything we naturally did during the day, meaning I couldn’t count gym class and my mother couldn’t count the aerobics classes she taught. 

Here’s Where It Gets Weird

We had criteria to meet each week — stay within the calorie range, do enough exercise, don’t eat too many “red” foods, lose a set amount of weight — to “earn” a reward.

Reward, you say? What?

So at each meeting, we made up contracts between kids and parents. We had to agree on a treat for each of us if we met the criteria. It couldn’t be material or food, so it was usually things like outings or privileges at home. I remember going to the Hershell Carousel Factory and my parents asking I let them sleep in on the weekend.

I don’t know, that just seems weird and creepy to me, but I can’t explain exactly why.

“Success”

Yep. I lost a bunch of weight. Of course I did — how could you not in those extreme conditions? So I was considered “successful” during the initial program, and probably when they followed up because I think it stayed off for a little while, and like all shams diet studies, they didn’t follow up far enough in the future to get the truth.

Lasting Impact

That’s not to say there weren’t long-term changes as a result of this program. They just weren’t quite what the researchers had in mind. Shall I list them?

  • I continued to categorize foods into the three very rigid “stop light” categories for years afterwards. 
  • I thought the extreme, starvation-level calorie range was a long-term ideal for everyone. When nutrition labels became standardized, and they calculated percentages based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, I was scandalized because that sounded like WAY TOO MUCH.
  • Exercise felt like a chore. I never learned to incorporate movement into my life seamlessly, so I thought it only “counted” if it was on top of whatever I might incidentally do during the day. 
  • Because I couldn’t sustain these habits for a long time (spoiler alert: no one can), I felt like a failure, and like I was some gross pig.
  • Thinking that I had failed meant I felt like being fat was my own fault, and any abuse I received because of it was deserved. 
  • I spent the bulk of my teen years and early twenties trapped in a cycle of trying a new ridiculous diet, being unable to sustain it, and feeling terrible. Rinse, repeat.
  • I still have a very “all or nothing” approach to whether or not I’ve succeeded at something, much like we did in our reward system.

But hey, at least Dr. Epstein got JAMA publication and eventually a lifetime achievement award, amirite?

The Paper

After this was all dredged back up, I found the paper I think resulted from the study. I don’t know if it’s the ONLY publication that came out of it, but it was extremely weird to see this thing that had such a lasting negative impact on my life boiled down into six pages for a medical journal. 

I read studies all the time for my dissertation research. But this is the first one I’ve read where I was one of the anonymous participants lumped together into statistics. It was really weird. I’m still not sure I can put how I felt into words, but I sat and cried after I read it. 

If we have to come up with something positive to come out of all this, let it be this: I have unique insight that many researchers probably don’t. I’ve been on the other side of the study. That’s something I can keep in mind while conducting my own research, even though my surveys won’t have the same long-term consequences. 

What’s The Takeaway Here?

DO NOT PUT CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS ON DIETS. DO NOT GIVE THEM NARROW CALORIE RANGES, RIGID EATING PLANS, AND STRICT EXERCISE REGIMENS. DEFINITELY DON’T TEACH THEM THAT “INTERMITTENT FASTING” IS AN ACCEPTABLE TACTIC.

Growing bodies need fuel. Instead of limiting intake, teach kids how to eat healthfully and move in ways that are fun. But teach them as ways to celebrate and care for the body, regardless of weight. Teach them to listen to their body’s cues regarding hunger and movement. Don’t use shame. Understand (and make sure kids understand) that weight fluctuations are a part of life, and that humans naturally come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Don’t put up with anti-fat talk or bullying. 

Weight control studies are damaging to children. Kids don’t need to have their bodies controlled and studied, they need to have them respected and nourished. 

 

 

 

 

*I feel compelled to add that I don’t blame or feel any anger toward my parents for this. They were doing what they thought was best for all of us based on the information they had, and I agreed to go along with it. If I’d been extremely resistant, I don’t think they would have forced me into it.

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