When midnight snacking is a disease

Weight Management Program opens, will research possible causes and effects of obesity

· October 11, 2007, 5:00 am

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It's bedtime, and you're hungry. You know you shouldn't reach for that bag of chips, but you do anyway.

Chances are, you just gave into a temptation. But for about 2 percent of the population, the snacking might be a symptom of "night-eating syndrome" that causes excessive post-dinner eating.

The syndrome, discovered and researched by Psychiatry professor Albert Stunkard, can be a serious obstacle in weight control.

The University took research like this to the public last week by opening the Albert J. Stunkard Weight Management Program.

The program will include behavioral therapy and a medical evaluation, in addition to examining body-image issues and the possible effects of depression on

obesity.

Patients will be provided with dietary counseling, among other things.

Stunkard is credited as the first person to describe binge eating and to identify night-eating syndrome, in which a large portion of calories are consumed just before bedtime.

He was also one of the first researchers to prove that obesity could be traced to genetics, not just poor eating habits or laziness.

"One of the results of this epidemic is that very likely, for the first time in many years, the life expectancy of our children will be less than ours" due to obesity-related health risks, Stunkard said.

The program is the only one in Philadelphia to provide such an extensive approach to weight management, program executive director Thomas Wadden said.

"We do a lot of innovative research where we're testing new medications and new diets," Wadden said.

The program will have two different treatment options:

The first, called the Health First Program, will involve meal replacements, such as shakes and meal bars and prepared entrees.

Those will take the place of "meals that sometimes are two or three times the portion size they should be eating," program director David Sarwer said.

This program will also enroll patients in group-dietary counseling and health assessments over the 24-week program.

The second option, called Penn First, is a similar behavior-modification program but without the meal replacements. It lasts 14 weeks.

Participants will have individual treatment throughout the course of the program.

Because obesity treatment is not usually covered by health insurance, patients will have to pay a fee for their treatment. Any Penn faculty who enrolls, however, will receive a 10-percent discount.

"The participants who come to our program are folks who typically have tried commercial weight-loss programs and self help and found that they're not successful," Wadden said.

Penn Nutrition professor Charlene Compher said that, for many people, this kind of structured program can do wonders.

"Many people are confused about what's wrong with their diet and are not sure how much physical activity they need," she said. "Most of us just honestly don't have enough knowledge to turn this around effectively."

With the help of the program, Stunkard expects that dedicated patients will lose anywhere from 12 to 15 percent of their body weight.

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