Hair loss, depression and more: The little-known side effects of dieting

  • Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 30, 2016 17:44 IST
Eating nutritious food is far more important than shunning unhealthy food. (Shuttertock)

Staying fit requires hard work and planning to ensure you get your daily dose of activity and nutrition. You need to take out at least 40 minutes to an hour each day for exercise, which should be a combination of aerobic (walking, swimming, running, sports) and strength-training to build lean muscle. And you need to eat smart, loading your plate with vegetables, whole fruit, whole grains and low-fat dairy, and sparing amounts of sugar, salt and saturated fats from animal products, such as meats and butter.

Eating nutritious food is far more important than shunning unhealthy food, but in their desperation to lose weight quickly, people stop eating altogether. Most weight-loss diet plans are highly restrictive and focus on daily calorie intake of less than 800 calories, against the healthy 1,600 calories for sedentary women and 2,000 calories for inactive men.

Apart from deficiencies, crash diets also cause a host of physical and mental problems, which range from dizzy spells and hair loss to osteoporosis, anaemia and depression. The most common side effects of restrictive diets are:

Dizzy spells

Sudden dizziness, tingling of your hands or feet, and/or ringing in the ear are among the most common side effects of extreme dieting caused by a temporary electrolyte and nutritional imbalance. While electrolyte balance can be restored quickly, anaemia and nutritional deficiencies take longer to inch back to normal even with iron, folic acid, vitamin B-12, vitamin D and omega-3 oil supplementation.

Read: Feeling the heat already? You don’t have to give up on health routine

Gastroenteric upsets

The stomach secretes acids at fixed times to prepare the body to digest and convert food to energy. When meals become infrequent or are missed, these acids attack the stomach lining and cause inflammation, leading to symptoms of stomach burn and/or nausea. It may also trigger more socially embarrassing complaints of belching, retching or vomiting. Over time, stomach inflammation can lead to ulcers. also, when you eat less, there is less waste for the body to push out, which makes the intestines sluggish, leading to constipation.

Hair loss and skin trouble

Hair grow for around two years before going into the ‘telogen’ or resting phase, after which they fall to make way for new hair follicles. Nutritional deficiencies –iron, zinc and vitamins A, C and E -- push hair into the resting phase before time, a condition called telogen effluvium, which leads to diffused hair fall. Iron and other mineral deficiencies, along with excessive water and fat loss, also make the skin’s surface atrophy. In mild cases, drinking plenty of water while dieting prevents rough skin, but if it doesn’t work, a moderate amount of fat must be eaten to restore skin health.


A healthy diet loaded with fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts and olive oil, with low levels of processed meats, can prevent depression. (Shutterstock)

It’s well established that people with depression and anxiety are more likely to have eating disorders such as anorexia (obsessive dieting)and bulimia (binge eating), but extreme dieting can also cause depression. Nutritional deficiencies affect the secretion of brain chemicals, including the happy-hormone endorphins, which depress mood, making dieters feel low and irritable. A healthy diet loaded with fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts and olive oil, with low levels of processed meats, can prevent depression, showed a study in the journal BMC Medicine.

Read: Steady depression may lead to dementia in old age: Study


Adolescents and teenagers who with anorexia showed that underweight girls with the eating disorder are shorter than their peers, reported a study in PLos One. While a healthy diet and weight gain can trigger catch-up growth, underweight girls still remained shorter than their healthy weight friends, found the study. Dieting also makes faces look bigger in proportion to the body because electrolyte and other vitamin and mineral deficiencies cause the body to retain water.

Menstrual Irregularities

Poor nutritional status, anaemia, low socioeconomic status often associated with menstrual problems, show several studies. The most common problem among women with very low body fat percentage and iron deficiency is menstrual irregularities or the periods completely stopping (amenorrhoea). Menstruation usually returns to normal within a few months after weight gain, but if ignored, menstrual problems may lead to infertility.

Read: A-Z of health: Common terms explained


Erratic diets can lead to calcium and vitamin D deficiency, which leads bones to be fragile, weak and prone to fractures. Since most of us build maximum bone mass before the age of 30, its vital not to scrimp on nutrition during this period. Bone loss accelerates after age 50, and while calcium and vitamin D supplementation prevents bone loss, it’s difficult for older adults to build mass. Thin people are also at a higher risk of fractures because fat fuels oestrogen production, which protects against bone loss. Fat also acts as cushion and breaks the impact of the fall, so it’s best to have healthy weight and strong balancing muscles to support bones.

Read: We bet you didn’t know Tequila can help treat osteoporosis

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