Dangerous Diet Fads

How far would you go to lose weight? As obesity hits an all-time—now affecting one billion adults worldwide—many of those battling bulge are so desperate that they’re putting their health at risk with bizarre—or downright dangerous—fad diets. 

One controversial fad involves daily injections of a pregnancy hormone, human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG), plus a 500-calorie-a-day diet. Women all over America are flocking to weight-loss clinics, shelling out up to $1,100 a month for a medical visit, a supply of the hormone, and syringes to inject themselves at home, the New York Times reports. A cheaper version of the diet uses  “homeopathic” hCG drops, sprays or lozenges, products that the FDA warns are fraudulent and illegal if they promise weight loss.

Is the key to slimming down in your genes?

The HCG diet isn’t new—it’s been around since the 1950s. Since the 1970s, the FDA has required a warning on the drug’s packaging that it doesn’t increase weight loss beyond that due to cutting calories, create a more “attractive” distribution of body fat, or reduce “hunger and discomfort” from dieting, as advocates claim. More than a dozen clinical trials show that hCG is no better than placebo injections. Weight loss is a legal, but “off-label” use of the hormone, which is FDA-approved as a fertility drug for women. Side effects include swelling, headaches, breast pain, depression and blood clots, with the FDA receiving a recent report of a hCG diet patient suffering a pulmonary embolism, a potentially life-threatening condition.

Detox diets are another risky diet craze. The most popular is Master Cleanse, which calls for drinking salty water in the morning, a mix of maple syrup, cayenne pepper, lemon juice and water during the day, and laxative tea at night, for at least ten days, to flush away toxins and excess pounds. Beyonce, Demi Moore and Ashton Kucher reportedly lost weight on Master Cleanse, which lacks protein, fatty acids and crucial nutrients. The lemon/maple drink provides about 600 calories a day.

“Although you may lose weight quickly over the short term, after you go off this extreme diet, the weight rebounds with a vengeance,” says Amy Doneen, ARNP, medical director of the Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center in Spokane, Washington. That’s because pounds shed on detox diets are mainly water weight, due to diarrhea. Master Cleanse can trigger dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Detoxing repeatedly can cause metabolic acidosis (excessive acidity in the blood), a condition that can lead to coma or even death in severe cases, according to a Harvard Medical School report.

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Another celebrity fad is the baby food diet, linked in the rumor mill to Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Lady Gaga. Since a jar of baby food contains about 100 calories, the idea is slim down through drastic portion control. Although baby food is healthy for infants, it’s relatively low in the heart-protective fiber adults need, notes Doneen. Also, unless accompanied by milk or another source of vitamin D, baby food may not supply adequate levels of the sunshine vitamin for adults, possibly a factor in why Paltrow was diagnosed last year with osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis, the brittle bone disease that leads to fractures, due to vitamin D deficiency,

Some weight-loss notions that may seem far-fetched, however, actually have a basis in science: Researchers at Stanford University discovered last year that if the scale won’t budge, you might be able to blame it on your parents. Women on diets matched to their DNA lost three times more weight than those following other plans. Another inherited factor that can influence the best weight loss strategy is which variant of the ApoE gene you carry on chromosome 19, adds Doneen, who wasn’t involved in the Stanford study. “Diets should be individualized as much as possible: Some people do better on a low-fat plan and others on a low-carb diet.”

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The skinny on how to slim down, adds Doneen, “is balancing healthy, filling foods that are low in calories, including fruits and vegetables, with exercise. Many people go on an extreme diet because they heard it worked for a celebrity and forget about the importance of physical activity to burn calories.” The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, like jogging, along with muscle-strengthening workouts two or more days a week.

Which diet has worked best for you?

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