SAN FRANCISCO — A group of 12 paid volunteers will be dining on salmon every day for 40 days and strolling through one of the most beautiful areas of this city twice daily--all in the name of science.
The arrangement is part of a 100-day dietary study being conducted by the federal government to determine possible beneficial effects of fish oil consumption. Entrees will include broiled salmon with dill, salmon pate on bagels, salmon lasagna and salmon teriyaki.
If the assignment, which began with breakfast last Tuesday, makes your mouth water, you're not alone. More than 2,000 prospective volunteers applied for the 12 slots, which pay $2,000 to each participant who completes the assignment. A local public service announcement recruiting volunteers generated worldwide interest and media attention.
But the 100-day stint has its drawbacks. Participants are confined to the dormitory-style "metabolic unit" of the Letterman Army Institute of Research at the Presidio. Constantly under the surveillance of staff, they are allowed only two hours a week to visit with family and friends.
Their diets are strictly controlled. Every bite is monitored. The only unlimited substance is water, and even that is tabulated daily. Participants not only clean their plates, they must scrape them squeaky clean. Along with forks and knives, rubber spatulas are provided with each meal.
"This is really a scientific study," said Rodger O'Brien, 54, of San Jose. "They weigh everything going in and everything going out."
On the first day, one participant drank the required glass of milk and sent his color-coded tray back to the kitchen. He thought he was done. Not so, supervisors said, handing him a spatula and requesting that he squeegee out the last drops of milk.
"Clean your plate takes on a new meaning," project manager Ed Blonz said.
Clyde Klingenberg, 48, of Watsonville weighs less than the other participants and was surprised to see a corner of his bread sliced off and placed on O'Brien's plate.
So far the food is drawing rave reviews--and salmon won't be on the menu for 18 days yet. The first 20 days are spent establishing what researchers call a "stabilization diet" of balanced, low-fat meals with no fish.
"The food is excellent," O'Brien said. "Any one of these meals, if you bought it in a restaurant, you'd pay some bucks for it."
Researchers hope that by feeding participants a diet rich in fish oils, they will be able to determine the purported beneficial effects of omega-3, or polyunsaturated, fatty acids.
Unlike studies in which participants consume massive doses of fish oil in capsules, research chemist Gary J. Nelson said this project seeks to replicate "a diet people could eat at home."
Previous research suggests that fish oils may be beneficial in the treatment or prevention of heart disease, cancer and other ailments, as well as in improving the body's immune system.
"You name it and somebody has claimed it," Nelson said.
Salmon was selected for its relatively high fat content. Some fish, like Dover sole, is only about 1% fat, compared to salmon, which is 10% fat, he said.
And it tastes good.
Late this month, volunteers will dig into their first helping of King Salmon, caught somewhere off the North Coast of California in late November. Because the salmon supply, like everything else in the study, must be closely monitored, dietitians bought all 350 pounds at once and froze it.
Salmon entrees served twice daily will provide each participant with about 25 times the amount of fish oil as the average American.
Because of biochemical differences, researchers had hoped to conduct the study with women volunteers, but their recruitment efforts failed to attract candidates.
Nelson called his research subjects, age 30 to 60, "an extremely healthy group of people."
Their daily regimen includes two two-mile walks around the Army base each day. The wake-up call is 6:30 a.m., and lights must be out at midnight. Volunteers share starkly furnished double rooms, as well as a library, "quiet room" and day room equipped with stereo, VCR and pool table.
"I'm thinking about getting a pool tournament together," said Robert Trujillo, 31, a self-employed market researcher who lives in Los Gatos. "Another guy is a carpenter and is going to be working on projects for his home."
Trujillo said he has always had an interest in scientific research and figured this way he "could contribute something to science without being dead."
O'Brien is the only married participant. He said he applied "just kind of out of a lark" and was surprised to be accepted. So was his wife.
"She wasn't thrilled about this, I'll tell you this," he said of his wife of 27 years. "But we're independent people. I didn't really ask her, to be honest."
Sal Borja, 61, of Saratoga is a retired schoolteacher who hopes 100 days of enforced discipline will clean up his eating habits.
"Here, you're not going to have a way out," Borja said. "You're going to stick to it."