Researchers in the United Kingdom and New Zealand developed an oral device that uses magnets to prevent a person from fully opening their mouths, restricting them to a liquid-only diet to help them lose weight. Many scientists and advocates have denounced the device as barbaric and say the research behind it perpetuates fatphobia.
In a trial of the device that was detailed in a study published in the British Dental Journal, seven healthy, obese female patients were fitted with the device and spent 14 days following a strict low-calorie liquid diet. On average they lost a little over 14 pounds over the two-week period, with an intake of about 1,200 calories each—far less than the 2,000 calorie recommended intake for adults.
It’s reminiscent of a procedure used decades ago that involved wiring a patient’s jaws shut to limit what they could consume, though this device is supposed to come with a tool that can unlock it in an emergency. The Washington Post and Vice spoke to several experts who study nutrition, obesity, and eating disorders, and their concerns over the device mirror the negative reactions and feedback the study has received on social media. The act of wiring a person’s jaw shut for weight loss purposes was stopped not only because it led to periodontal disease, but many patients also developed serious psychiatric conditions as a result.
As Tom Quinn, director of external affairs for eating disorder charity Beat, told the Washington Post, “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.” Chelsea Kronengold, associate director of communications for the National Eating Disorders Association, pointed out that the device was an example of “weight stigma” and that the study’s participants being happy with the weight loss results despite the discomfort they reported during the trial was “...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.”
In the published study, the researchers note that “Most patients experienced occasional discomfort due to the device and it was quite severe after 24 hours, with the friction of the device against the cheeks being the main reason.... After 24 hours, the participants indicated that they occasionally felt embarrassed, self-conscious and that life, in general, was less satisfying.”
Speaking to the Washington Post, Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University, felt that this approach was “a fat-shaming tactic” and that “people who are about to undergo weight-loss surgery should be working to repair their relationship with food pre-op, not waiting until after.”
Through the University of Otago’s Twitter account, the researchers behind the study addressed the backlash and clarified the specific use cases for the device. “To clarify, the intention of the device is not intended as a quick or long-term weight-loss tool; rather it is aimed to assist people who need to undergo surgery and who cannot have the surgery until they have lost weight.”
But Samantha Keene, a lecturer in Criminology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington, called out the researchers’ bias, noting that their paper on the device claims that “...studies have shown that obese patients usually have an addictive personality and an impulsivity for sugary food, and suffer from binge-eating disorders.” Through her Twitter account, Keene wrote, “Please tell me again how the authors of THAT Otago piece were well-meaning? Just horrific. Most fat people do not have an impulsivity for food, an addictive personality, nor do they have binge eating disorders. This is just so, so awful.”
Editor’s note: The original version of this article did not critically address the many problems with this research. The article has been updated to reflect how truly horrific this device is.