Researchers in New Zealand and the United Kingdom said they were fighting the “obesity epidemic” – by locking peoples’ jaws 2 millimeters from shut via a magnetic contraption installed in the mouth. The goal is to restrict wearers to a liquid-only diet.
The device has an emergency key to unlock it – just in case users have a panic attack or choke.
“It is a non-invasive, reversible, economical and attractive alternative to surgical procedures,” the study’s lead researcher said in a news release Monday. “The fact is, there are no adverse consequences with this device.”
Experts who study nutrition and eating disorders disagree. Deanne Jade, founder and principal of the U.K.’s National Centre for Eating Disorders, said the device is like “a return to the Dark Ages.”
“This is very, very dangerous,” she said. “Any extreme weight loss device – any of these strategies run the risk of harm unless you’re working with someone who is fully trained to deal with all these issues that can arise from it.”
Tom Quinn, director of external affairs for eating disorder charity Beat, said in a statement that this device is “incredibly concerning.”
“It also completely oversimplifies the issue of obesity, reduces the process of weight loss to a question of compliance and willpower and ignores the many complex factors involved, which may include eating disorders,” he said.
Chelsea Kronengold, associate director of communications for the National Eating Disorders Association, called the apparatus, which is cemented to wearers’ molars, “barbaric.”
“What did these people gain from this?” asked Joan Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University. Salge Blake said her gut reaction was that this was a fat-shaming tactic.
The study repeatedly compared this “novel” device to the practice of jaw-wiring, which was popular in the 1980s but fell out of favor as patients developed psychiatric conditions and periodontal disease. The researchers said this new implement avoided several of jaw-wiring’s pitfalls.
Seven obese women were outfitted with the device for two weeks, according to the study. They lost an average of just more than 14 pounds in that time span, or about 5.1% of their body weight, but gained about 1.6 pounds back in the two weeks after the trial ended. The participants in the study all had a body mass index (BMI) over 30.
Some experts say BMI has been debunked as a health measure for years. In 2009, NPR called the measure “scientifically nonsensical” and noted that the 19th century Belgian who created the index “said explicitly that it could not and should not be used to indicate the level of fatness in an individual.”
Jade said while BMI isn’t a perfect measurement, it’s what researchers have for now. Kronengold said BMI should not be used an indicator of health.
Study participants were restricted to a 1,200-calorie-per-day liquid diet in the form of four drinks and one protein shake. They were also allowed low-calorie liquids such as tea and coffee, according to the study.
The standard recommended daily calorie for adults is intake is 2,000. The recommended daily intake for an 8-year-old is more than 1,200, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The kicker is, yes of course they lost weight,” Salge Blake said. “My goodness gracious, they couldn’t eat. But look what happened when they took it off. Two weeks later they started to gain weight.”
Participants reported occasional discomfort and feeling that life in general was less satisfying during the study. But according to the study, qualitative analysis found participants were happy with the outcomes of the trial and “motivated to lose more weight.”
“This is literally saying that people would rather live a less satisfying life in a smaller body than have a full and satisfying life in a larger or fat body,” Kronengold said. “And that is weight stigma in a summary.”
A tweet on Sunday about the device from the University of Otago in New Zealand, one institution the study’s researchers hailed from, garnered widespread attention on Twitter.
“Everyone involved in this needs to go to therapy and stay away from patients,” one person tweeted. Several Twitter users compared the contraption to a medieval torture device. Others called it “dystopian.”
“Just comically evil,” one user wrote. “Drawing and quartering is a great way to lose some pounds too,” another said.
After receiving thousands of quote tweets of the original post, the university took to Twitter on Monday to announce a clarification: The device is meant for people who need to undergo surgery but can’t until they lose weight, the account said.
The team’s lead researcher defended the device in a similar way to the New Zealand Herald.
University of Otago Health Sciences pro-vice-chancellor Paul Brunton said the apparatus is not meant to be used for general weight loss purposes, but instead for specific cases where there is a clinical need to lose weight quickly.
“Sometimes the first step [of losing weight] is quite difficult,” he told the publication, “so it was developed with a view of being an additional treatment that could be used in selected cases where it’s appropriate.”
Salge Blake said even if that’s the case, people who are about to undergo weight-loss surgery should be working to repair their relationship with food pre-op, not waiting for post.
Monday’s news release on the study said the tool could be “particularly helpful” in those cases, but also discussed using the device to prevent surgery altogether.
The National Eating Disorders Association Helpline is available at (800) 931-2237 if you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder.