This morning I found it necessary to change the tie-in to the article I planned to write about, Only another 5,500 calories to go ..., that appeared in the Guardian earlier this month. Originally I planned to tie-in to the movie that inspired the as-yet unpulished study featured in the article - Super Size Me.
But then, this morning, Dr. Mike Eades wrote an article in his blog with an even better tie-in - data published from the original Framingham Study! As Dr. Eades notes, the original data was massaged to death and "These guys tried as hard as they could to show a correlation between diet and serum cholesterol and between diet and the incidence of coronary heart disease, but failed. The data conclusively demonstrated no such correlations."
How does this relate to the Guardian story?
Well, a Swedish researcher, Dr. Fredrik Nyström, wanted to have some fun with excess research funds, and since watching Super Size Me he had been thinking of how, in all the studies of obesity and metabolism, hardly anyone has studied what happens when you force healthy people to put on weight. The few studies there have been took place in the 60s and 70s.
So he decided to conduct a 30-day trial with volunteers consuming fast food morning, day and night. Any fast foods they wanted as long as they consumed 6,000 eye-popping calories a day and agreed not to engage in physicial activity.
It wasn't difficult to find volunteers.
Late last year, after delivering a lecture on the ills of overeating, he casually asked if any of the students would be prepared to gorge themselves for the sake of science. He was deluged with applications, but mostly from men (he thinks that women are too wary of gaining weight). They all had to be in good health, but as he says: "Young med students usually are." Nyström then simply chose the ones who seemed "the most highly motivated".
In February, seven healthy medical students in their early 20s spent weeks stuffing themselves with hamburgers, pizzas, milk shakes and 200g bacon breakfasts - all on the university's tab. A second group of subjects are just now hitting the junk food. Physical exercise is to be avoided. Bikes are out. To discourage walking even the shortest distance, free bus passes have been issued.
Those participating found out how hard it was to eat that many calories each day - breakfast at home was allowed, provided it was bacon-and-eggs based. And the fast food didn't have to come exclusively from McDonald's: hamburgers could be exchanged for pizzas, as long as most of the calories still came from saturated fats, those having the most effect on levels of cholesterol. Still, it wasn't unusual for students to be about to go to bed only to discover that they were some 600 calories short of their daily target, and forced to face a large calorific milk shake rather than a mug of hot milk.
While the data itself is not yet published, the researchers have already noted that the while the students did gain between 5% and 15% extra weight and initially (in the first week) felt tired, none experienced the mood swings reported by Morgan Spurlock in the movie Super Size Me.
Interestingly, in the Swedish experiment, while the liver readings got steadily worse until the third week, they then took a turn for the better. The liver, it would seem, adapts. Cholesterol, meanwhile, was hardly affected.
The full findings are due for publication early next year, but the information we have at this point from the study is that, as Dr. Eades pointed out from the Framingham Study, serum cholesterol isn't really affected by our diet. At least not as much as we're led to believe!
As Dr. Nyström pointed out, "If you only look at the already overweight, you'll only do research on those with least resistance to calories, so to speak."
I'm going to be watching for the data when it's finally released and will write more about it once it's published. In the meantime, I don't think it wise for anyone to go out and follow such a diet as described above - but I do think this type of study is important in our understanding of nutrition & metabolism.