Before you know it, it’s going to be new year resolution / detox time and you’ll probably be casting about for the ‘most effective’ crash diets of the year. So here’s a bit of a primer. (Spoiler alert: There is no such thing as a quick, easy short cut to a tiny waist or an ideal BMI.)
What about Dukan, New Atkins, Paleo and Alkaline, you say? Yes these extreme weight-loss measures were trending in 2016, and they may seem to work. You’ll drop the pounds in the short-run, fit into that dress or pair of pants. But even in a few weeks, they’re doing damage you can’t see. And there’s the added danger that they’ll ‘work’ so well, you’ll return to them periodically, doing more damage still.
“Essentially, these diets cannot be followed in their absolute form without some side-effects,” says Ritika Sammadar, head of dietetics at Max Healthcare, Delhi. “Extremes are no solution, are not sustainable, and do the body more harm than good. I have seen people deficient in micronutrients because they’ve been following these fad diets.”
Here’s a look at what they are.
The Dukan is a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. There’s a diet plan designed for the week that starts with natural proteins with no restrictions on quantities. On the second day a person can include vegetables, and on the third day fruits are allowed. Day four gives you the luxury of breads (whole wheat) and on the fifth day one can have some cheese. Starchy foods such as rice and pasta are allowed on day six and the seventh day is a cheat day where one can eat whatever one feels like.
The primary problem here is the lack of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables in the early phases, making it nutritionally imbalanced. The clinical symptoms you could develop range from weakness and fatigue due to low carb intake, to constipation due to low fibre consumption.
The Paleo or caveman diet focuses on non-processed foods high in protein and low on carbs. These include fish and meats, shellfish, tree nuts, vegetables, eggs, fruit, mushrooms and berries — aping the eating practices of Paleolithic Man. The diet does not include foods that contain grains, milk or milk products, beans, potatoes and sugar.
Essentially, it’s too much red meat — going back to a time before doctors, in a time when one ought to know better. Depending on how long you follow this diet, you could experience weakness, constipation, cracked nails due to iron deficiency and cracked lips from a Vitamin B-Complex deficiency, among other symptoms.
The New Atkins diet seeks to turn the body into a fat-burning machine by starving it of carbohydrates. The diet is divided into four phases — for rapid initial weight loss, gradual weight loss, to find a carb balance for life, and finally guides a person to a formula that lets them stay slim and feel more energetic.
In the first two weeks, a person is on a protein-rich diet with no restrictions on fat, and a daily carb allowance of 20 gm, mainly through vegetables low in carbs. More carbs are introduced in the next three phases, 5 gm and 10 gm at a time, with the aim of working out what your ideal carb intake is to maintain a healthy weight for life.
The high intake of saturated fat could affect cardiovascular health over the long term. In the short term, starved of carbs, you can expect weakness, nausea and headaches.
The Alkaline diet, made famous by the likes of Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Aniston and Gywneth Paltrow, is designed around the theory that modern diets cause too much acid in the body, which can turn into fat. This diet promotes alkaline foods that reduce acidity levels. So there is a restriction on meats, grains, refined sugar, dairy products, caffeine, alcohol and processed foods. Plenty of fruits and vegetable intake is recommended.
In each of these diets, nutritionists say, the idea of erasing or severely restricting an entire food group is set to lead to deficiencies. In the alkaline diet, this could emerge in the form of calcium deficiencies. Elsewhere, the lack of certain nutrients can cause hair fall, brittle nails, disorders of the digestive system, even disturbed sleep cycles, mood swings and anxiety.
“The skin, hair and nails are the first to be affected, so watch out for those warning signs,” says clinical nutritionist Ishi Khosla.
“A protein-only diet, for example, means you are lacking in other vitamins and minerals necessary for normal growth and development,” adds Sammadar.
Dietitian and nutritionist Ushma Chheda says one should be wary of high-fat, low-carbohydrate keto (short for ‘ketogenic’) diets also because the weight won’t stay off once you give them up. “I’ve had people who lost 20kg with fad dieting but gained 25kg when they stopped,” she says. “Such diets can also cause long-term weight gain because of the drastic slowdown they cause in metabolic rate.”
And then there’s the risk of developing conditions one never had before. “One of my patients developed high blood pressure because he was drinking 2 to 3 litres of salt-and-lemon water as ‘detox’ every day. And for some reason, the banana diet was also big this year. I can’t underline enough how dangerous fad diets can be. Balance is key, whether it comes to fat, protein, or minerals,” Chheda says.
Luckily, most of the damage can be undone at the early stages, simply by discontinuing the diet, even if you’ve kept it going for a couple of months. “With healthy eating and exercise, symptoms should ease in little over a month,” Sammadar says.
It’s not really the fault of the diets either, she adds. They are meant to be undertaken for short periods, under the supervision of an expert, with an eye on the specific needs of the individual.
“If you must do the diets, don’t do them for a week or 10 days at most,” says nutritionist Neha Arora. “Anything more can harm the body.”