Oct. 2, 2012— -- Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are making an unusual offer: They are paying people to add fat to their own bodies by eating an extra 1,000-calorie fast food meal each day for three months.
Dr. Samuel Klein, the lead researcher in the study, wanted to do some basic research on why only some people who gain weight develop diabetes and hypertension, while others do not. It's something he said he couldn't research by feeding food pellets to lab animals.
"What you learn in rodents does not always translate to people," Klein said. "What you learn on flies and worms won't translate to people."
Fast food turns out to be a perfect food pellet replacement because it is good for measuring exactly what people are eating. The five restaurants chosen for the study were McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC.
"[Fast food restaurants] have very regulated food content," said Klein, the lead researcher of the study. "We know exactly the calories and macro-nutrient composition within fast food restaurants, so it's a very inexpensive, easy and tasteful way to give people extra calories."
There was also a cash incentive. Participants could earn up to $3,500, depending on how long it took them to reach the weight goal. They had to gain 5 percent to 6 percent of their body weight during the three-month span and then they could work to shed the pounds again. Researchers monitored their weight from week to week.
When the hospital put out an ad seeking participants, several people came forward.
Dawn Freeman, a 50-year-old nurse who has now finished the program, started out weighing 170 pounds. She said she gained 16 pounds over the course of eight weeks.
She was compensated a total of $2,650 for her effort, including $50 to lose all the weight again, which she did with diet and walking exercise to help her get down to 162.8 pounds. The hospital guides participants through the weight loss.
Freeman said gaining weight fast -- with a doctor's persmission -- only sounds easy and even seemed easy with the first meal, a Big Mac and large fries from McDonalds.
"It was really good and you know the next night I went to Taco Bell and it was, it was wonderful," she said. "This is after I have already eaten dinner."
But Freeman eventually found out that gaining weight in a hurry was hard, something Klein predicted.
"This is not pleasant for them," Klein said. "It's not easy to stuff your face every day for a long period of time."
Freeman said she started to feel awful after two weeks, "I could hardly breathe anymore."
She is glad it's over. But another participant, Dave Giocolo, was about to find out that this experiment was not a food lovers' dream.
The 48-year-old bathroom design and supply salesman said when he heard the medical school's ad on the radio while commuting to work, he called them right away.
The St. Louis native starting weight was 249.9 pounds, with a goal of adding about 15 pounds for the study. So Giocolo, who never went without his morning McDonalds breakfast burrito, started eating quarter pounders for the sake of science.
He made so many drive-in runs that he knew the calories by heart, but around week four, those burgers and fries started to catch up with him. Giocolo said his knees and ankles started aching.
"It's getting harder to move," he said.
Metabolism is a mysterious thing. For Giocolo, the weight went on, slowly it seems. One week he actually lost about a pound. That's when researchers told him to up the quantitites. Around week 11, he said he was ready to be done with it.
Just last week, Giocolo finished the weight gain part of the study, hitting 268 pounds -- a gain of just over 18 pounds. He was compensated $3,225, and will receive more when he gets his weight back down to baseline.
Now his challenge is to lose the weight, helped maybe by the fact that he said he has lost his appetite for fast food, at least for a while.