8,000 Calories a Day: Doctors Mystified by Case of World's Thinnest Woman
Texas native Lizzie Velasquez, 21, is thinner than anyone thought possible. She spends her days wolfing down burgers, fries and cake, consuming more than three times the normal calorie requirements. Doctors can't explain how she can be so underweight and still alive.
She starts the day with corn flakes or a burrito. An hour later, 21-year-old Lizzie Velasquez is already snacking on potato chips or cookies. Soon afterwards, she eats fried chicken with French fries or a pizza. By lunchtime, Velasquez has already consumed about 4,000 calories, as much as the average road worker or miner burns in an entire day.
The same pattern continues throughout the rest of the day. Velasquez likes it when whatever she has on her plate is covered with plenty of melted cheese. By the time the native Texan goes to bed, the caloric value of the food she has eaten that day corresponds to about 8,000 calories.
The same procedure has repeated itself day after day for years. With that kind of diet, one would image the young woman would be so obese that she could barely leave her home. But the opposite is true. Lizzie Velasquez is so thin that strangers sometimes knock on the door of the family home to angrily inform her parents that they should feed their daughter properly.
Of course, these people have no way of knowing that Velasquez has probably already consumed as much food in her young life as her mother, who is twice her age.
Zero Body Fat
Nevertheless, Velasquez has no fat at all on many parts of her body -- which, in her case, literally means zero fat. That is in contrast to, say, bodybuilders who claim to not have a single gram of fat on their body when they still have about 6 to 8 percent body fat.
But because Velasquez, unlike bodybuilders, has hardly any muscle mass either, she looks as if her skin were stretched directly across her skeleton. She walks on stilt-like legs and her handshake is as light as can be. But apart from her extremely low body weight -- about 62 pounds (28 kilograms) at a height of 5 foot 2 inches (157 centimeters) -- Lizzie Velasquez is doing well. Her condition will not deteriorate as long as she continues to eat enough.
Her metabolism is a mystery. What happens to all the energy from the fast food Lizzie consumes? Doctors don't know the answer. All they know is that Velasquez is part of a tiny minority on the planet, probably only a handful of people, who can eat as much of whatever they want without gaining weight.
Is the mysterious anomaly a disease, a syndrome, a genetic defect -- or even a gift, as Velasquez calls it? Some have already speculated that the body of this young woman from Texas could hold some sort of magical formula -- a "thinness gene," if you will -- that many an overweight person would love to have.
Cheeseburgers without Regret
Human metabolism has in fact been thoroughly studied, and nutrition science yields new revelations week after week. They fill the pages of glossy women's magazines in the form of diet tips, some of which are controversial. Nevertheless, experts still cannot offer a satisfactory explanation of why some gluttons stay thin while less fortunate people gain weight even if they are relatively modest eaters.
Velasquez has girlfriends who envy her for her ability to eat several cheeseburgers in a row without regret. But this form of recognition is relatively new. For most of her life, Velasquez was either ridiculed or pitied because of the way she looks.
Faced with such adversity, she developed a defiant sense of pride. She insists that she wouldn't want to change anything about her condition, even if there were the prospect of a cure. "The syndrome is worth every negative experience," she says. "I don't want to look like everyone else."
The mysterious ailment has never occurred in her family before. Velasquez's younger siblings -- her brother Chris and her sister Marina -- have developed normally. Her parents Lupe and Rita, who are religious, allowed Lizzie to grow up with the knowledge that fate had dealt her a special hand.
This outlook is reflected in the title of a book Velasquez has written: "Lizzie Beautiful." Not surprisingly, the book's publication triggered media interest in the emaciated woman.
Too Strong to Die
As a young girl, Velasquez appeared as a guest on several television programs. Some audience members reacted to the hyper-thin child, with her thick glasses, the way visitors to a fair in Victorian London once must have gawked at Joseph Merrick, the severely deformed man known as the Elephant Man. Unable to bear the horrifying otherness they were witnessing, many visitors, then and now, tried to compensate for their discomfort by making absurdly vulgar remarks.
Velasquez already attracted attention at her birth. She weighed 2 pounds, 10 ounces (1,190 grams) and was only 16 inches (40 centimeters) long. "I fit into a small shoebox," she says. Far more disconcerting was the fact that the newborn had no fatty tissue at all. Her arteries were clearly visible under her skin, and her head resembled that of a crudely carved wooden doll.
Doctors did not think that the little girl would survive. But then, to everyone's surprise, it turned out that all of her internal organs -- lungs, heart, liver and intestines -- were fully functional. Apparently Velasquez was too strong to die.
Surprising the Doctors
A detective-like search for the essence of her mysterious ailment began. But the effort was in vain. Doctors couldn't figure out what the girl lacked.
They told the parents that their daughter would never be able to walk or talk. When Velasquez was four, doctors discovered that she was blind in her right eye. Her vision was also significantly restricted in her left eye.
But Lizzie could walk -- and talk. And she did grow. The only problem was that she was unable to gain any weight. The taller she became, the more emaciated she looked.
Lacking answers, the doctors had only one piece of advice for the parents: "Keep an eye on your daughter, and get in touch with us if anything seems strange."
But everything about her was already strange.
- Part 1: Doctors Mystified by Case of World's Thinnest Woman
- Part 2: Too Thin to Be Alive
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2010
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH