When it comes to losing weight, people will try anything for quick results – no matter how dangerous or ridiculous it may be.
Experts have recently released a list of five bizarre and dangerous slimming diets that are currently all the rage in various parts of the world:
The Breatharian Diet which entails attempting to survive on air alone.
The Biotyping Diet that requires the user to carefully select foods to match them to the dieter’s ‘biotype’. For example, ‘Thyroid types’ would need to eat a ‘hunter-gatherer’ diet to achieve weight loss and good health (Bates, 2013).
The Gluten-free Diet which bans all gluten and thus dictates that users avoid eating foods that contain wheat, barley, rye, oats, titricale and kamut (grains that may contain gluten).
The Alcorexia or Drunkorexia Diet that is based on a basic starvation diet and loads of alcohol to make up the remaining calories or kilojoules required for survival.
The Dukan Diet (Dukan, 2010), another high-protein, low-carbohydrate clone diet proposed by a French medic.
In South Africa we have the very similar ‘Noakes Diet’ aka Banting diet, which has been proposed enthusiastically by a South African Professor of Exercise and Sports Science.
As usual, each one of these potentially harmful diets has its high-profile, glamorous adherents who swear that they have either lost weight with one of the diets or owe their svelte bodies to eating according to the words of wisdom dispensed by their gurus who propagate these diets.
I was particularly disappointed to read that Michelle Pfeiffer supports the Breatharian Diet, Boy George is a Biotyping follower and Gwyneth Paltrow is a Gluten-free Diet adherent.
By making public statements that they use one or other unbalanced diet, these celebrities are setting what may in some cases become a dangerous and even fatal example.
Imagine what could happen if a young, impressionable teenager, who may, or may not be overweight, reads that her pop or film idol skips food and substitutes alcohol to lose weight or just take deep breaths instead of eating.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that such a young person may copy this kind of irresponsible behaviour and end up with alcoholism or anorexia or suffer a fatality.
Analysis of the diets
Let’s analyse each one of these diets to see if they will cause weight loss and what potential risks they are associated with.
All five of these potentially harmful diets will quite probably cause some weight loss.
a) Breatharian Diet
If you follow the Breatharian Diet and stop eating and ‘swallow’ air instead of food or drinks, then you will of course lose weight, but you will also develop serious nutrient deficiencies and damage your health.
For example if you swallow air instead of having a glass of low-fat milk you will lose out on the high-quality protein, easily absorbable calcium, phosphorous and vitamin B2 (riboflavin) that milk contains.
Over time this will cause ‘brittle bones’, a condition that is already rife in young women and teenagers of both sexes. In later life this substitution of dairy products with air may contribute to osteoporosis.
But why should youngsters worry about something that happens 30 years down the line when all they want is a skinny body right now? Well, if you are a responsible human being you will realise that what you do in your youth will influence your health for the rest of your life.
So by all means take deep breaths because fresh air is important, but do also eat a well-balanced diet with a reduced energy content and do some exercise to lose weight.
Keep in mind that anorexia nervosa or bulimia or orthorexia are not slimming options, but serious psychological and physiological illnesses that can be fatal.
b) Biotyping Diet
The Biotyping Diet is based on Body Biotyping which is defined as “a way of finding patterns in your physical, emotional and psychological characteristics and using them to improve your health, mainly using, but not limited to nutritional advice.” (Bates, 2013).
Once the patient has been subjected to biotyping he or she is encouraged to eat only selected foods to ‘balance’ his or her pituitary, thyroid, adrenal or gonadal hormones.
According to the proponents of Body Biotyping, these different hormones cause different patterns of growth and weight gain areas, divergent food cravings, and varied emotional reactions which when pinpointed will enable organisations such as The Perrymount Clinic in the UK to figure out what combination of foods is most suited to the needs of the individual patient (Bates, 2013).
The ‘Thyroid-type” who should eat a hunter-gatherer or paleo diet is one example cited by Bates (2013). It is interesting to note that individuals who access the Perrymount Clinic Website can purchase a basic Metabolic Typing package for £55. The package includes a food plan, instructions for use and lifestyle improvement advice which is e-mailed to the user.
Any telephonic consultations will cost £45 per 30 minutes. While it is true that hormones do play a role in weight gain, the entire presentation of this theory of Body Biotyping does not ring true, but it will certainly earn the Perrymount Clinic a lot of money.
Use of the Biotyping Diet could potentially cause orthorexia nervosa which is defined as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy”. Orthorexia is generally associated with the development of deficiency diseases due to excessive exclusion of a wide variety of foods.
c) Gluten-Free Diet
The Gluten-Free Diet is also an avoidance diet which bans the intake of all foods that contain wheat, rye, barley, oats, titricale or kamut. Exclusion of these grains will generally cause some weight loss, but as most patients with true gluten allergy or coeliac disease know, it is a particularly difficult dietary regimen to follow in the modern world.
Potential deficiencies of dietary fibre leading to constipation and of vitamin B complex may occur unless the user of this type of diet continues to eat other unrefined, unsifted grains such as sorghum, maize, quinoa and brown rice.
d) Alcorexia or Drunkorexia Diet
This is indeed an ill-conceived suggestion and should under no circumstances be used by anyone, particularly not by young people who are still growing. Any starvation diet will lead to weight loss until the body drastically slows down its metabolism to conserve energy.
Inevitably individuals on a starvation diet develop the full range of deficiency diseases. Now if this alarming state of affairs is exacerbated by the intake of large quantities of alcohol, one would expect the liver and kidneys to break down relatively rapidly.
Ironically, users of this diet may not lose as much weight as they expect, because alcohol has the second highest energy content of all the macronutrients, namely 29 kJ per gram (fat provides 37 kJ per gram, while protein and carbohydrates only contribute about 17 kJ/gram to our energy intake).
Starving yourself and drinking large quantities of alcohol may therefore ruin your health, turn you into an alcoholic and even cause weight gain instead of loss.
e) The Dukan Diet
This is another repeat of all the high-protein, high-fat, low-carb or no-carb diets that have been trotted out as ‘miracle cures’ as far back as Dr Atkins last century and more recently by Dr Dukan (2010) in France, the South African ‘Dieet waarvan almal praat’, ‘Dr Cohen's Diet’ and the Noakes Diet.
I reviewed Dr Dukan’s book in April 2011. At the time I wrote: “Ask yourself if you could eat (and afford) only protein, a few selected vegetables and a small portion of oat bran for a long period during the Cruise Phase. And afterwards, could you eat the restricted diet of the Transition Phase for months and months?
Research studies have indicated that the fall-out rate for high-protein diets is very high because people tend to get very tired of eating only proteins and a few vegetables (Foster et al, 2003; Stern et al, 2004). As omnivores (not carnivores), humans need a varied diet which also includes carbohydrates.”
In view of the potentially harmful effects these diets can have on health, I can only urge the South African public to follow a well balanced slimming diet prepared by a registered dietitian and regular exercise if you want to lose weight this year. Please don’t endanger yourself by trying out any of these fad diet.
References: (Bates C (2013). Body Biotyping. www.theperrymount.com; Dukan, P (2010). The Dukan Diet. Hodder & Stoughton, UK; Foster GD et al (2003). A randomized trial of a low-carbohydrate diet for obesity. New Eng J Med, 348(21):2082-90; Irish Independent (2013). www.independent.ie/woman/diet-fitness/this-years-most-dangerous-fad-diets-29785945.html; Close your mouth to these five dangerous fad diets. Pretoria News, 31th December 2013, page. 4.; Stern L et al (2004). The effects of low-carbohydrate versus conventional weight loss diets in severely obese adults: one-year follow-up of a randomised trial. Annals of Int Med, 140(10):778-85.)
(Photo of crazy happy woman from Shutterstock)
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.