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Experts Slam 'Batsh*t' Teen Weight-Loss Trial, Call For End To 'Reckless' Study

Pressure is mounting to end a controversial Australian study that puts teenagers on strict diet and fasting plans to monitor weight loss.

The Fast Track to Health study involves participants aged 13 to 17 eating no food on alternate days of the week, and enduring severe calorie restrictions.

The $1.2 million taxpayer-funded program, running at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, is aimed at teenagers who are obese, and includes a month-long “very-low energy” diet.

The goal of the Sydney Children's Hospitals Network trial “is to determine if a modified alternate day fasting dietary pattern results in significant weight loss and a lower BMI (body mass index)” when compared to a standard “reduced calorie dietary pattern”.

Photo: Getty Images

The plan sees two different diet plans used with obese teenagers, with participants at times limited to only a quarter of their daily recommended energy intake. Teenagers are limited to one small meal per day, plus three to four meal replacements like shakes or protein bars during this period.

One group then continues this low-energy diet for three days per week, while the second group begins a more normal reduced-calorie diet plan.

The trial, already running for a year, has 50 participants but researchers are trying to recruit another 136.

Experts at Sydney's Westmead Children's Hospital and Melbourne's Monash Health believe the research will help fight obesity in Australia.

Childhood obesity is an increasing problem in Australia. Studies suggest that three times as many children are overweight or obese now than 30 years ago.

However, psychologist Louise Adams, who specialises in eating disorders, criticised the approach as "batshit".

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"A history of dieting is the number cause of eating disorders," she told 10 daily.

"The best time to develop an eating disorder is the age of 14. We need them to stop this trial."

Adams said when it comes to diets, people tend to lose some weight initially, but then put it back on again.

"Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. They are difficult to treat and ruin lives," she said.

She has made several attempts to thwart the research process, including contacting the research ethics board at the hospitals.

The change.org petition started by Louise Adams has almost 20 000 signatures. Photo: supplied

Her complaint was co-signed by 29 healthcare professionals including psychologists, researchers and dietitians. It was rejected by an anonymous board.

"They have been very polite and nice but just very dismissive," she said.

Last month, she started a Change.org petition which now has close to 20,000 signatures.

"Over time, dieting is a risk factor for weight gain, not loss. All we are teaching kids by putting them on diets like this is how to endure a lifetime of weight cycling and misery," the petition said.

Teenagers in the trial are limited to one small meal per day, as well as three to four meal replacements like shakes and protein bars during this period. Photo: Getty Images

A 2017 study comparing alternate-day fasting with calorie restriction has been trialled on adults, and the results weren't inspiring.

"Alternate-day fasting did not produce superior adherence, weight loss, weight maintenance, or cardioprotection vs daily calorie restriction," the authors concluded.

A spokesperson for the FTTH trial said any risks are "minimal and manageable".

"We want to find out which plan is the most successful at reducing weight and improving health. We may find that both work well," a spokesperson from The Children’s Hospital at Westmead said in a statement.

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They said the trial is being conducted under close medical supervision, with support from highly trained health professionals. The hospital spokesperson pointed out "this is not health advice for the general population, it is a trial being conducted in a very specific group of patients."

The spokesperson said the study has been approved by a stringent hospital ethics review process.

"Our systematic review shows that this specific group actually have neutral or improved behaviours in relation to eating disorders," the spokesperson told 10 daily.

Body image not-for-profit The Butterfly Foundation said one in 20 Australians have an eating disorder.

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The Foundation, along with The Australian and New Zealand Academy of Eating Disorders, released a joint statement sharing their "strong concerns" with the study.

The eating disorder organisations acknowledged researchers have updated the parent information sheet to indicate there may be a minimal risk of increased eating disorders from engagement in restrictive dieting.

But they want stronger warnings.

They have also requested additional psychological support for participants throughout the trial as well as screening for anxiety and distress throughout the study.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au

To talk to somebody about disordered eating, speak to your local GP, contact one of the specialists listed by the InsideOut Institute, or for confidential support, call the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.