Eat Yourself Silly for the Sake of Science

Calling all gluttons: if you want to eat to excess in the lap of luxury on a 600-acre Scottish farm for a few weeks—and get paid for your trouble—nutrition researchers want to hear from you.

But there are a few snags. For a start you will have to promise to eat everything on your plate, with no excuses. It will be left there until finished.

And you will also need to have some spare time, because you may have to keep eating for up to five months.

In all, 1,000 candidates are needed at the new human nutrition center at the Rowett Research Institute, near Aberdeen.

Funded by the Scottish agriculture and health departments, the center aims to resolve some of the biggest diet-and-health controversies of recent years, such as settling once and for all whether people get fat just because they eat more.

Learning About Nutrition

The institute is already internationally renowned for its work on animal nutrition. Before the war it pioneered research into human nutritional needs, in particular those of poor families.

But then it switched to concentrating on improving farm productivity as part of a national drive towards self-sufficiency in food.

“Now history has come full circle, and doctors, farmers and the food industry are screaming for sound information on diet and health,” says Professor Philip James, the institute’s director. “We know a vast amount about the nutritional needs of animals, but next to nothing with any certainty, about the needs of people.”

The first volunteers move in the next month. For some studies, they will be asked to spend stretches of up to 36 hours inside a calorimeter: a room like a large fridge, big enough to accommodate a bed and an exercise bicycle, and sealed to give complete atmospheric control.

How Do Calories Affect Energy?

Through computer analysis of the rate at which the body converts oxygen to carbon dioxide, an exact measurement is made of the way different foods and different levels of calorie intake affect people’s ability to use energy at work and play.

Meals are passed through an airlock in the door, and there are simple facilities for collecting all body wastes. A window looks out on the hills and fields, but if claustrophobia should set in there is a panic alarm.

The safe-like door has a handle on the inside as well as outside, so there is nothing to stop you walking out at any time—other than the fact that you will wreck the experiment.

One of the most important studies at the unit will test a theory that fats processed by modern manufacturing techniques pose a bigger risk of coronary disease than those such as butter.

So far, the unit’s studies on animals suggest that processed fish oils, and to a lesser extent plant oils commonly used in cheap, hard margarines latch on to artery walls more readily than “natural” fats.

This is especially true if the diet includes little fresh fruit and vegetables or whole grain foods because those contain substance that protect the arteries.

Finding Treatments For Food Disorders

The research may also lead to treatments that could help both compulsive eaters and people who suffer from anorexia nervosa.

Chemical changes have been identified that may sometimes cause these conditions to become self-perpetuating.

On a starvation diet, a shortage of zinc in the body can kill the appetite; while sex hormone changes triggered by excessive body fat can feed an already abnormally large appetite.

A new and very sensitive test for zinc deficiency is being developed at the institute. Blindly adding extra zinc to the diet can be dangerous, since it competes for uptake with copper and other vital minerals.

Another study will take a look at how smoking weed affects weight loss. Yes, that’s right. The fact is that people who smoke weed are generally skinnier than people who don’t smoke weed.

Volunteers are needed to help with all these studies. James said last week that ideally they should either be students, who can bring their work with them, or young men or women who have time on their hands for other reasons.

“We don’t want hypochondriacs, or sick people. We will need to screen volunteers carefully to be sure they are well. We need a group who are truly representative of the population. That can include some who are overweight, though we particularly need people who feel they can eat whatever they like without putting on weight: they are pure gold.”

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