Drastic shortcuts to slimness carry their own risks

BARBARA WICKENS January 11 1999


Drastic shortcuts to slimness carry their own risks

BARBARA WICKENS January 11 1999



Drastic shortcuts to slimness carry their own risks

Until scientists develop the ultimate magic bullet—a diet pill that is not potentially lethal, or at least one with benefits that clearly outweigh the sideeffects—many overweight people will turn to strange or just plain dangerous alternatives. One U.S. study revealed that 24 per cent of women questioned would give up three years of their life to achieve their weight goals. A sampling of some of the alternative methods:


Something safe and easy to swallow is the Holy Grail of the diet industry—and so far the search has been equally elusive. But the quest continues, with drug manufacturers spending millions in hopes of capturing a healthy slice of the $60-billion-a-year North American diet industry.

Doctors first prescribed diet pills in 1910, with ingredients that included arsenic and strychnine. Amphetamines became popular in the 1940s after it was discovered that the drugs, given to Second World War fighter pilots to keep them alert, also suppressed appetites.

A more recent fad in the United States was the drug cocktail fen-phen, which was never approved in Canada. In September, 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked manufacturers to voluntarily recall one of its key ingredients, fenfluramine, after studies linked it to heart-valve abnormalities. (Phentermine, the “phen” part, is still legal, but sales have plummeted.) Since then, the FDA has approved—against the advice of its own advisory committee—Meridia, which has side-effects that include increased blood pressure and pulse rate.

Meridia’s manufacturer, Knoll Pharmaceutical Co., has not received

approval from Health Canada. In fact, over weight Canadians do not have access t many of the over-the-counter drugs avail able to Americans. A Health Cañad: spokesman said that one of those drugs Dexatrim, failed to gain Canadian approva 10 years ago because the agency was no convinced the risks associated with th ingredient phenylpropanolamine out weighed its benefits. There are other prod ucts with phenylpropanolamine availabl: on U.S. shelves, but the manufacturer have not tried for approval in Canada sino Dexatrim’s rejection, she added.

Still, Canadians are not without re course—provided they are willing to tr herbal or homeopathic remedies. A trip to a health-food store o to many pharmacies reveals an array of reducing teas, diet drink; and vitamin supplements. Some have common elements, including oat fibre or cayenne pepper (hot foods increase the basal metaboli rate, the rate at which the body burns calories). Others contain mon exotic ingredients, such as ephedrine, a caffeine-like stimulant, o uva-ursi, a diuretic.

While it is easy to sip a beverage, pop a pill, it is not clear that the; do the job, and the costs of continual use can add up. Most herbal sup

dements are not regulated by Health Canada and there is little objecive proof that they are safe and effective. One herb that has received cientific study, Garcinia cambogia, was declared ineffective by the ournal of the American Medical Association last October.


"hat’s what Toronto dietician Rosie Schwartz calls any diet regimen hat promotes certain foods as having special virtues, eliminates certain lutritious foods claiming they are harmful, or advocates unusual mating patterns. “If a diet makes claims that are too good to be true,” he adds, “it is just that.”

That, of course, has not stopped some fad diets from being exremely popular this century. (Dieting was virtually unheard-of before he wraith-thin flapper girl of the 1920s; 1890s pin-up girl actress Lillian hissell topped the scale at 200 lb.) One of the first plans was the 1930s lollywood 18-Day Diet, a 586-calorie-a-day regimen of citrus fruit, nelba toast and hard-boiled eggs. Since then, dieters have tried all sorts »f fads, including the grapefruit diet, the Drinking Man’s Diet (martinis ind steak), and the Scarsdale Medical Diet, which outlined every norsel permitted in a week. It became so popular that some restaurants iffered the plan. All waiters had to ask was, “What day are you on?”

For a would-be dieter uncertain how to proceed, such diets eliminate he guesswork of what to eat, and when. But according to nutritionists ike Schwartz, that is exactly what is wrong with them: the dieter lever learns to make the proper choices or how to gain control of eatng patterns. As well, extreme dieting can be counterproductive, by ooling the body into thinking it has to store fat.


"his category differs from the previous one only in the messianic zeal n individual can bring to touting a particular diet. Dr. Robert Atkins, Hio first hit it big in 1966, is back with Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution. "he 1990s version no longer advocates pork rinds while limiting brocoli, but still goes heavier on protein than many nutritionists recomnend. Dr. Dean Ornish pushes the standard recommendations of highibre, low-fat dieting to an extreme, claiming fat should account for only .0 per cent of daily intake, instead of the more standard 30 per cent.

Considering that some people bring an almost religious fervour to lieting, it should perhaps be no surprise that religion is in on the act. it least three Christian groups now hold weight-loss sessions in hunIreds of churches in Canada. While their approaches to food differ greatly—one advocates only the raw fruits and vegetables that were

available in the Garden of Eden, while the others allow participants to eat whatever they desire—their message is the same: turn to God before turning to food.

Gurus can help provide motivation, while their adherents can provide peer pressure. But as with demon diets, the adherents never learn how to make healthy choices on their own.


Numerous studies, as well as lots of anecdotal evidence, show that regular exercise is absolutely crucial to losing weight and to preventing the pounds from returning. But for some people, that healthy approach is simply too much bother—so they turn to machines to do the work for them. In the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball tried to sweat some pounds off in a steam box—a sight gag guaranteed to get laughs. In the 1960s, a motorized contraption with a large canvas belt that jiggled the offending body part was popular. The misguided theory was that the motion would break up fat cells, making them easier to excrete. The main result was patches of red, irritated skin.

A modern, high-tech version is the Electrical Muscle Stimulation machine found in some salons. Derived from medical equipment used to treat injuries, EMS sends a weak current into the muscles, causing them to contract and relax quickly. Advocates claim that a 45-minute session is the equivalent of, say, 880 sit-ups. While many salons do a brisk business, some of their customers find the experience unpleasant. “I absolutely dreaded going, but I was desperate,” says one Mississauga, Ont., office worker. She went to six sessions before heading to the bathing-suit hell of a Caribbean vacation. “It did absolutely nothing for me,” she says. “It was a major waste of money—and it hurt”


For the morbidly obese, those who have a Body Mass Index of 40 or greater, surgeons have sometimes turned to extreme measures. At one time, they have included wiring patients’ jaws shut so they could only ingest food through a straw. More recently, doctors turned to stomach stapling, which reduces the size of the stomach, effectively limiting the amount of food that can be eaten at any one time. Hollywood talk-show host Roseanne announced recently that she lost 75 lb. after having a balloon inserted into her stomach to accomplish much the same thing as stomach stapling.

A trendier surgical alternative is liposuction. It involves a surgeon inserting a tube connected to a high-vacuum device through a tiny incision to suck out fat deposits. When introduced in the early 1980s, liposuction was used mainly for contouring—getting rid of those last intractable five pounds of love handles, for instance. But now, according to Dr. Mark Godley, a Vancouver anestheI siologist and director of the private False Creek Surgical Centre, people use liposuction to jump-start a weight-loss program. That change occurred as improvements in the technology allowed surgeons to vacuum out more fat than was previously possible.

With liposuction, the results are visible immediately. Still there are the risks, including infection or reaction to anesthetic, associated with any surgery.

Some people are so intent on achieving, and keeping a lean physique, that they are willing to literally make themselves sick. The ancient Romans started it with their vomitoria. Of course, their goal was not so much to lose weight, as to be able to continue stuffing themselves at their lavish banquets. The modern equivalent, bulimia, is a serious eating disorder that affects mainly women aged 14 to 25. The cycle of binging and purging can result in dental problems, extreme sensitivity to cold, hair loss and cessation of menstrual cycles. It can even prove fatal. When it comes to dieting, the end cannot always justify means.