Paul and Marianne have already covered this story about a study of 9 to 13-year-old girls involved in one of Duke University’s weight loss programs, which found that girls assigned to read a book with a weight loss story line (“Lake Rescue”) lost a little bit more weight than girls who read a non-diet book, and girls assigned to read no book at all gained a little bit.
The “Lake Rescue” group decreased its BMI scores 0.71%, the group that read another book decreased its BMI scores .33%, and the group that had no intervention increased its BMI scores .05%.
(Note: Marianne says “There is no indication that the girls who read the book that was not about weight loss and the girls who didn’t read a book at all gained weight,” which is accurate in response to the WaPo article she links to, but not in response to the study itself. For some reason, that article didn’t include any numbers on the other two groups.)
Marianne, our editor, and I were discussing this over e-mail this morning, and here’s what I said (yes, I’m blockquoting myself):
What I really want to know is how many pounds we’re talking about here. The fact that I’ve read 3 or 4 different articles on this now and haven’t seen a number other than the percentage by which they decreased their BMI tells me there were probably about 2 or 3 lbs. difference, max, between the girls who lost the most and the ones who gained. I don’t think I touched on this specifically in the “train yourself to read critically” chapter, but now I wish I had. “Statistically significant” weight loss is such a red herring — in these studies, a few pounds can be significant by scientific standards without changing the subjects’ health or even appearance noticeably. And I can’t count how many times I’ve read something like this, looked up the original study, and found out that yep, the difference in question is less than 5 lbs. The classic example is Alli — over a 2-year period, people combining dieting and Alli lost an average of THREE POUNDS more than the control group that was just dieting, and that’s enough to qualify it as a weight loss aid. One that makes you crap your pants.
Also, I can’t seem to find out the exact ages of the girls in the different groups. The whole cohort is 9-13, an age group within which some big fucking bodily changes naturally occur — and the study measured the girls’ weights twice, six months apart. So okay, first, six months have passed, and you’re seriously trying to tell me you can measure the effect of reading a single YA novel, as if no confounding factors might have cropped up in that time? Second, six months for a girl between 9 and 13 can be the difference between a child’s body and a woman’s body. How do we know the girls in the no-book group — a whopping 17 of them — didn’t hit puberty during those six months, or start to, in which case, a gain of .05% of their BMI is nothing? I mean, it’s nothing anyway for growing kids, but seriously, a weight gain so tiny you won’t even tell us exactly what it is in pounds, over a period of six months, is supposed to make us think a group of girls around the age where you start to develop breasts and hips is doing something wrong? And meanwhile, a weight loss almost as tiny in a different group of girls who might skew more toward 9 than 13 for all we know, also over a period of six months, is supposed to make us think a weight-loss case study disguised as a novel is some sort of magic bullet?
The fact that this has garnered so much attention — all of it, natch, with commentary on the “childhood obesity epidemic,” even though the increase in childhood obesity, just like adult obesity, has leveled off – makes my fucking blood boil on a couple of levels. First, because they have proven exactly squat, but the media is so hungry for new angles on the always crowd-pleasing OMG FAT PEOPLE ARE FAT story, they’ll take anything. And second, because I want to cite these researchers for flagrant misuse of children’s literature. As Marianne said:
Fiction that is written in order to preach a certain course of action rarely succeeds. It winds up formulaic and awful. If a writer isn’t telling a story that they believe in – that contains truth in all the fiction – the story will fail. It becomes propaganda.
Good books can make outsidery kids feel less alone, escape their troubles for a few hours at a time, and imagine possibilities beyond what they’re offered in their own lives. Encouraging fat kids to read novels is a fabulous idea, as far as I’m concerned. But encouraging them to read goddamned weight loss propaganda completely subverts the point of reading for both pleasure and enrichment as an outsidery kid — which is to enjoy being absorbed in a world where you aren’t made to feel like shit about yourself.
Which leads me to my final thought on all this. Given that all these kids were involved in a weight-loss program to begin with, and dieting is often a trigger for eating disorders at that age, if (big if) we stipulate that “Lake Rescue” had a real effect on the group of girls who lost a tiny bit more weight than the others, how, exactly, did that happen? Were they inspired to become even more extreme in restricting their food intake or exercising? If so, is that really a good thing?