Dangerous dieting

Weight-loss fads can be hazardous to the health

DAVID THOMAS February 10 1997

Dangerous dieting

Weight-loss fads can be hazardous to the health

DAVID THOMAS February 10 1997

Dangerous dieting


Weight-loss fads can be hazardous to the health

It is the time for remorse. The spending and eating binges of late December give way to days of reckoning in midwinter. The bloated numbers on the dial of the bathroom scale, like those on the credit card bills, prompt earnest promises of reform—well intentioned, but usually doomed to fail. Guilt and despair propel Canadians by the thousands towards the so-called miracle diet books, many of them long discredited, counterproductive and even dangerous—but now resurgent in new editions.

Half of the annual list of diet books reaches store shelves in the first three months of the year, g according to Helena Aal§ to, director of marketing | for the country’s biggest | bookseller, Chapters Inc. £

And the publishers are f catering to an expanding § market. By the standards 5 of Health Canada, 28 per Simon (left) and Meschino: carbohydrates are essential cent of men and 19 per cent of women are clearly overweight, and the percentages have been increasing.

Those numbers refer not to the merely flabby but to those whose health is statistically threatened by their overweight.

Nutritionists say the real key to healthy fat

loss—for those who need to shed pounds to survive, as well as to those who simply want to look and feel more attractive—usually involves fundamental changes in lifestyle. This year, that discomforting message is vying with the miracle diet books for shelf

The Dieting Heavyweights

Last week’s best-selling diet books at the 360 Chapters Inc. stores across Canada:

1. Fit for Life, Marilyn and Harvey Diamond

2. The Zone, Barry Sears

3. Make the Connection,

Oprah Winfrey and Bob Greene

4. Foods that Harm, Foods that Heal, Reader’s Digest

5. Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution,

Robert Atkins

6. Armed and Dangerous—

Fit, Firm and Ready to Fight,

Wendy Buckland and Barbara Nicoll

7. Stop the Insanity, Susan Powter

8. Food, Susan Powter

9. Mastering the Zone,

Barry Sears

10. Fit for Life 2, Marilyn and Harvey Diamond

space in the stores. In Break the Weight-Loss Barrier, Toronto psychiatrist Barry Simon and chiropractor Jim Meschino try to debunk the fad books. “We wrote the book to set the record straight,” says Meschino, a self-described “wellness coach” whose chiselled features, muscularity and shiny curls could make him a prized personal trainer to the rich and self-obsessed.

Meschino, a biologist, says it takes only 24 hours without carbohydrates for the liver to use up all its reserves. “After that,”

he says, “your body

According to Health Canada, people face possible health risks due to weight if a factor known as their BMI—body mass index— is less than 20 or more than 25. BMI can be calculated with a four-step formula—slightly complex but a lot simpler than a tax return:

1. Multiply your height in inches by .0254 to determine your height in metres. 2. Multiply that number by itself to determine the square of your height. 3. Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to calculate your weight in kilograms. 4. BMI equals your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in metres.

A BMI greater than 27 means you are definitely overweight; 25 or 26 is borderline, depending on factors such as bone structure and muscle mass. Below 20, you are underweight.

rapidly breaks down its lean mass to produce carbohydrates.” Worse, he contin! ues, “your body becomes very acidic on a

Ï high-protein diet and takes calcium from your bones to neutralize the acid. This leads to bone loss and osteoporosis.” Improper dieting can backfire in other ways as well on those pursuing a leaner, sexier image, especially when they combine it with overly aggressive exercise. “I’m seeing a whole bunch of clients who exercise too much, don’t eat enough and have become infertility cases,” says Toronto dietician Susie Langley. With their food intake “not putting enough fat or cholesterol in their bodies to produce hormones,” she says, the result can be impotence in men and infertility in both sexes.

And even while Meschino and Simon’s book challenges some diet claims, Langley finds fault with some of its recommendations. “It treats it as a given that you have to take vitamin supplements, and many people don’t need to,” she says. And although the authors present a balance of behavior, diet and exercise advice, she adds, readers who use the meal plans without reading any text could be in trouble. ‘They’re low in fruits and vegetables,” she says. “They’re

not what I would give people to eat.”

These days, nutritionists concerned about the hazards of fad diets are focusing on the popular high-protein, low-carbohydrate regimens, including elements of the best-selling Dr. Atkin’s New Diet Revolution, Fit for Life and The Zone. The appeal of such diets, they say, is that they will cause body weight to drop precipitously. The horror is in the way they can do it—not by dissolving fat but by sending the body into a state of semi-starvation.

As Meschino notes, to find fuel to replace missing carbohydrates, the body begins to cannibalize its own muscle tissue. Eventually, the dieter quits, after reaching a weight goal or becoming disgusted with diet-induced sideeffects such as flatulence or bad breath. By then, the body has lost much of its ability to burn fat, but none of its capacity to produce it. The result, when old eating habits resume, can be a rapid generation of fat in a body with debilitated muscles and—in extreme cases—weakened bones. But muscles are the body’s real fat-burners, and their reduced size and metabolism make disposal of the new fat much harder.

Fad diets are too frequently based on seductive theories “full of scientific error,” says nutritionist Zhaoming Xu of the University of British Columbia’s school of family and nutritional science. “A high-protein diet is usually a high-fat diet, too,” he notes. Meschino says the practical alternative is to turn the body into a “fat-burning machine” by consuming a balance of carbohydrates and protein—and dedicating at least 30 minutes a day to jogging or other “gentle endurance” exercise.

Co-author Simon, who looks reassuringly ordinary beside his brawny colleague, focuses less on muscle and more on the mind. “I want people to catch the feeling that’s causing their action,” he says. “It may mean understanding why you’re feeling lonely, and doing something about the loneliness instead of soothing yourself with food.” But while their common-sense approach may work for the mildly overweight, there is no fast fix for the truly large. ‘We have yet to find the cure for obesity,” says Health Canada nutritionist Lydia Dumais. “So far, everyone is a guinea pig.”