November 30, 2005

Stepping on the Scale May Help Fight Weight Gain

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Recent Cornell research conducted by Prof. David Levitsky, nutritional sciences, and his research team scrutinizes the infamous phenomenon of gaining weight during the first year in college – “the freshman 15” – and suggests that tracking one’s weight daily may be an effective measure for bucking the trend.

Levitsky’s research on first-year college student weight gain started somewhat by chance.

“A couple years ago, one of my students wanted to do his honors thesis on the ‘freshman 15,'” Levitsky said.

Levitsky tried to find something on the topic in scientific databases and recalls how little substantial research was available. The results of the students’ study indicated that Cornell students gained an average of six to seven pounds in their first semester. Levitsky became interested in what sort of laboratory work could be done to discover effective weight-gain prevention methods.

At the start of their first semester at Cornell, female students participating in the recently-completed study stepped on the scale. At the end of the semester, everyone weighed in for a final time. Those who participated in the “treatment” of daily weighing and feedback had not gained any weight, while the control group that ceased contact with researchers throughout the semester had gained an average of seven pounds in the first phase of the study and more than four in the second phase.

Levitsky remembers how bold the results of the experiment were: “[The treatment] was so successful that the first time we did it, I didn’t believe it. We had to do it again.”

For the treatment group, Levitsky and his researches developed a feedback method called the Tissue Monitoring System, which estimates changes in body tissue from a series of daily weight measures. After e-mailing in their weights every morning, girls were sent a weekly response email, either in the form of tissue mass graphs or number of calories they needed to shave off daily in order to maintain their original weight.

“I was trained as a behaviorist,” Levitsky explained. “If you get an indicator of your blood pressure, you control your blood pressure. It seemed there could be a corresponding situation with body weight.”

He likened the design of the experiment to bio-feedback. He does not think research thus far has established the exact source of the effectiveness of the experiment. Whether it was simply stepping on a scale each morning, having to continuously report one’s body weight to another or receiving feedback on how to adjust, the success of the experiment cannot yet be pinpointed to a certain cause.

Levitsky acknowledges that common advice from dietician and other health professionals instructs weight-conscious individuals to stay away from constantly weighing themselves. Reasons range from being simply a discouraging, uninspiring endeavor, to risking the development of a weight-obsessive self-image that can lead to serious eating disorders.

However, girls in this experiment were allowed to stop at anytime for any reason, and none chose to do so. When asked what it was like to weigh themselves daily, they responded neither negatively nor positively. Levitsky suggested that perhaps their came from considering the task merely part of the experiment. The average weight of the females in the group was basically that of the general average.

Naturally, not all Cornellians are in support of trying this tactic of weight control. Anything from personal discomfort to philosophical views could be grounds for steering clear of a morning weigh.

Lauren Allen ’08, when asked whether she’d like to give it a try, said, “No, I wouldn’t want to. I feel as thought I would end up reducing myself to a number. It would probably have a negative influence on my confidence.”

Others see no special harm in this method of controlling one’s weight.

Jesse Prager ’08 said, “I don’t think it would make my feel more weight conscious than I am now.” And in regards to those participating in the experiment, he considered it “a really cool way for freshmen to be aware of how their daily habits affect their health.”

Why only female subjects? Freshmen of both genders are prone to gain weight after arriving at college, and in earlier experiments, Levitsky used male and female subjects, but he admitted recent experiments are women-only because women “make better subjects.”

They were more likely to follow instructions and keep up with the regiment.

A current study being conducted by Levitsky and his research team has taken this method and applied it to a goal of very slow, permanent weight loss for overweight people. Overweight post-graduate volunteer subjects use daily weighing and weekly feedback to move towards losing half a pound per week, until they have reached goals of losing up to one tenth of their original bodyweights and then maintaining their goal body weight.

Levitsky emphasizes that the point of daily weighing is not to become fixated on exact daily weights, which are always subject to fluctuation, but rather to make a record so that one can watch the direction of the trend of one’s weight over a period of time.

The study’s findings will be published in 2006 in The International Journal of Obesity.

Archived article by Suzy Gustafson
Sun Staff Writer