See something, say something is what the anti-terrorist watch tells us at the airport and in public spaces. When people take individual and collective responsibility for reporting whenever they see something potentially dangerous, something not right, it’s possible to prevent catastrophes.
An alert went out on the AED (Academy of Eating Disorders) listserv from Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, MD who had caught wind of a weight loss study recruiting subjects in Australia under the auspices of Children’s Hospital Westmead (Sydney) and Monash Medical Centre (Melbourne). The lead investigator is Professor Louise Baur; the Sydney Children's Hospital Network Human Research Ethics Committee approved her proposal.
I did not respond in great detail on the listserv, except to protest children being dieted in general, as I had not yet seen the actual proposal. But now I have seen it. For those of you who wish to read it in its entirety, here is the link.
First, let’s be clear, this is not a study for consenting adults which includes some teens, it is a study designed for children and adolescents. The youngest participants will be 13 and the oldest 17. They are looking for the equivalent of a 5% reduction in body weight in an adult or 0.12 point reduction in BMI z score in an adolescent. They say nothing about the sustainability of this weight loss, just that the fact of it will be considered a “successful endpoint”. We all know that dieting causes weight loss in the short term, but nearly always fails in the long term, so how is this progress?
The study lasts an entire year—which in my view is a very long time to starve a dog, much less a child. You have to have a BMI of between 30-45 to participate, which means that someone - likely several someones - has identified you as “fat” with all the psycho-social ramifications of that. A plethora of lab tests and frequent checks by a dietitian make it look medical, but I do not see pediatricians or adolescent medicine physicians referenced anywhere in the protocol. The dietitians are going to weigh the kids, but no one is checking their pubertal status, which matters a great deal when assessing growth and development; they measure their blood pressure but do not mention monitoring their menstrual status.
So if the teen-aged girls stop menstruating with weight loss and dietary restriction, would that still be a successful outcome?
Incredibly, the year-long study starts with all of the children being taken down to an 800 kcal a day, very low fat (less than 20%) diet consisting of “meal replacements”. Study authors think they will have an attrition rate over the year of 30% -- I think it might be closer to 90% (run, children, run!). This painfully low level of initial food intake will last one month (4 weeks) for everyone, after which the subjects will be randomly assigned to one of two arms: the Modified Alternate Day Fasting arm and the Standard Hypocaloric Diet arm.
In the alternate day fasting arm the children will eat 300-600 kcals/day for three non-consecutive days a week and a “healthy diet” not restricted in amounts for the others. The “healthy” bit means they will be “coached” to adhere to the Australian Dietary Guidelines which, if you look at them, state that one should only eat “small amounts of fats” and “mostly low-fat dairy.” Wow! Didn’t they get the memo? Does anyone in the government actually follow the science as it evolves? Children need fat to grow, or as one researcher points out: “Long-term dietary deprivation of (n-3) fatty acids results in measurable changes in the visual and neurological function of primates (Neuringer and Connor 1986).” News flash: we are primates.
There are so many worrisome points (e.g., how does a 13 yr consent to this study?) it is hard to know where to begin, and as I read on I found myself racing from one point to another, dizzy from the effort. Those children who were randomized to the non-fasting arm, or the “standard low calorie” arm as they put it, eat a diet consisting of 1434-1673 kcals/day at age 13 to 14 or 1673-1912 kcals/day for those 15 to17 years of age. Slim pickins! This so-called “healthy” diet is “high fiber” (> 30 gms/day), “moderate” carbohydrate and “moderate” protein, no mention made of dietary fat.
And the psychological “support”? Let’s remember these are kids and now they are very hungry kids who are already shamed by their size/weight and doubtless would blame themselves for any “failure” to comply. For support they see a dietitian at week 20, 26, 36 and then, as “additional support”, receive an email, text or phone call lasting 10-15 minutes at weeks 18, 24, and 48.
You have to ask: they receive support to do what? Stick to the diet?
And don’t be fooled by a raft of psychological tests administered: the Body Appreciation Scale, the EDE-Q, and various quality of life questionnaires, self-esteem questionnaires and depression questionnaires. These are designed to help the study, not the kids, as it merely reports their symptoms, but cannot address them. Nor do I see a protocol for what to do should severe psychological distress arise as a result of the semi-starvation.
All of this is reason enough, in my view, to refrain from allowing your child to participate in a dieting experiment. Try it out on yourself for a month and see what I mean. Now imagine being a 13 year old kid who weighs 250 lbs and who has to live with hunger every day of their life for a full year, at school, on the playground and at home and who then, after all that, “successfully” weighs 237 lbs.
And here’s one more pressing reason not to allow it: it’s cruel.
So I have seen something, and I’m saying something: cease this madness and end this appalling and unethical experiment on children. Please join me. Share this with your colleagues, friends, and elected representatives (if you’re in Australia). Let’s speak up and speak out. And if the authors of this study believe we have misinterpreted their intentions, let’s have an open, respectful, scientific discussion about the merits, before a single child is enrolled. Thank you.