October 2012 Archives

A Big Fat Experiment

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As obesity rates in America continue to climb, so does the importance of exploring the possible long-term implications of such an epidemic. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine were interested in discerning why some overweight people develop health problems like diabetes and hypertension, while others don't.

No longer satisfied with using rodents as research subjects, after all there are myriad differences between the biological mechanisms of humans and mice, these researchers decided to conduct a unique, and somewhat controversial, experimental study to gain better insight into the effects of weight gain on human beings.

Using a sort of convenience sampling, researchers put out ads looking for participants who were willing to gain 5-6% of their body weight during the course of the 3-month study. Selected participants had to eat an extra 1,000-calorie meal once a day at 1 of 5 selected fast food restaurants (Taco Bell, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and KFC). Since fast food chains regulate and disclose the nutritional content of their meals, this was an inexpensive and easy way to moderate the participants' extra caloric intakes.

Although participants could receive compensation up to $3,500, and help losing the weight after the study concluded, ethical concerns arise over the research standard of beneficence. Do the monetary benefits really outweigh any potential physical health problems that may arise from gaining so much weight so rapidly?

This is a question that has driven much media attention around this study.
Individuals in the study quickly found out that it is unpleasant to gain weight rapidly; it's no easy feat to constantly eat as your body's natural functioning tells you to stop. Participants complained of breathing difficulties and physical pain as a result of the dramatic and fast weight gain.

While it's inarguably important to track the effects of social and health trends, such as obesity, at what point is the cost to participants greater than the benefits to science?

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