When looking to lose a few pounds, dieters will try almost anything. From living on cabbage soup alone, to eating only protein or barely eating anything at all, being sensible and realistic is the key to never finding those pounds again.
By Lisa Ferguson
I knew I’d hit rock bottom when a sesame seed bagel brought me to tears.
It was 1990-something, and I was several weeks into the then-popular, low-carb Sugar Busters diet. As per the instructions, I’d banished white breads, rice, potatoes and pastas from my daily menus; was steering clear of salad dressings, soft drinks and such; and had resorted to slurping salsa from a spoon rather than allow a single, forbidden tortilla chip to pass between my lips.
Sure enough, the pounds had begun to slowly melt away. Unfortunately, my sanity went with them. Visions of baked goods danced in my head as my willpower waned. I probably would have hurt someone if it meant getting my hands on a Twinkie.
My breaking point was reached the morning a co-worker brought into the office a bag of fresh bagels and a bucket of cream cheese. He set them near my desk, their scent wafted over and, well, I began openly weeping on my keyboard.
With that, my Sugar Busters diet officially went bust.
Later, while licking globs of cream cheese from my fingers, I wondered where I’d gone wrong. Does anyone ever have any luck with these so-called “fad” diets? Some plans at least appear more healthy and sensible—i.e., South Beach, The Zone Diet, Atkins, Dukan, Ornish, The 17 Day Diet, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig—than others, like the Cookie Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet and (ugh!) the Tapeworm Diet.
According to the independent market-research firm Marketdata Enterprises, the nation’s 75 million dieters last year helped the U.S. weight-loss market top $60 billion in revenue. Despite those numbers, nearly 70 percent of people in this country are considered to be overweight or obese.
You can bet most of those folks aren’t celebrities, who always seem to be fighting—and winning—the battle of the bulge. Who wasn’t wowed by sitcom star Valerie Bertinelli’s dramatic weight loss via Jenny Craig? Or songstress Jennifer Hudson’s slim-tastic turn courtesy of Weight Watchers? Academy Award-winner Gwyneth Paltrow has made headlines touting the benefits of her “GOOP” cleansing diet. Fellow Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Kate Winslet have also reportedly taken weird paths to weight loss: The former by eating baby food, the latter by adhering to a “facial analysis diet,” determining which foods to eat (or avoid) based on the colors and textures of one’s face. Huh?
Jillian Michaels went from being “The Biggest Loser” trainer to one of the biggest names in diet and fitness with her best-selling books and DVDs. And Bethenny Frankel, a former scene stealer on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” has made phat cash with her line of Skinnygirl products.
“Here we are, a society that worships the very thin. All of our stars or actresses are beautiful and skinny as can be,” yet the nation is in the midst of an obesity epidemic, reminds Susan Yager, author of the book “The Hundred Year Diet: America’s Voracious Appetite for Losing Weight” (Rodale Books, 2010).
“We’ve had a long history of fad dieting in America,” she says. The first weight-loss schemes emerged in the early 1900s, despite the fact that the nation’s obesity issues didn’t actually begin until the ’80s. “We were a very thin nation before then,” she explains, when people were less sedentary and super sized, fast-food meals weren’t the norm.
For the most part, Yager says, fad diets are all style and no substance. Any of them will produce results initially due to reduced caloric intake. “Still, you have to learn how to eat correctly to maintain that weight loss for the rest of your life, and I think for 95 percent of us it’s very difficult to give up any particular food forever. So we have to eat them in moderation, in controlled portions and still maintain our weight.”
Some diets are better than others. Yager calls Weight Watchers “pretty good” although she’s “always a little suspect, when a company is based on people being overweight, how much they really want the obesity epidemic to end.” She says the fruit-and-vegetable heavy DASH Diet is “very sensible”; but gives a thumb’s down to the popular Atkin’s Diet. “Any diet that emphasizes (consuming) huge quantities of synthetic vitamins, as Atkins did, is always a bad idea because … you’re not getting the nutrients you need from your food.”
Although “there’s nothing wrong with the South Beach Diet,” Yager says, “there’s nothing particularly right with it.” Its creator, Cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston, advises eliminating “bread and rice and white foods, and that doesn’t make any sense to me” since those are foods that “many slim populations have thrived on for millennia. Japan has the thinnest population in the world, and we all know how much rice is consumed in Japan.”
“Every fad diet is just a starvation diet with a cool name,” Yager insists, “and starving yourself is a bad idea.”
The latest diet craze sweeping the country fits that description: Human chorionic gonadotropin, better known as HCG, is a highly controversial hormone generated by the placenta during pregnancy. Proponents say it’s able to suppress hunger and triggers the body to use its fat stores for fuel. When coupled with a 500-calorie-per-day diet, it theoretically should help people lose a pound or more each day during a typical 30-day dieting cycle.
HCG was previously on the market briefly during the 1950s and ’70s. These days, the hormone is prescribed and purchased in an injectable form at an increasing number of doctors’ offices and weight-loss clinics around the country. It’s also sold in an unregulated, oral liquid-drop form without a doctor’s prescription at nutrition stores, drugstores and fitness centers, as well as over the Internet.
Scientific evidence backing HCG’s weight-loss and appetite-suppressant claims is nonexistent, and the Food and Drug Administration does not approve the hormone. It can also be an expensive diet, with a month’s worth of injections costing more than $1,000 at some outlets.
Barbara Paulsen is a registered dietitian who teaches in the nutrition sciences department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In her previous work with the Dairy Council of Utah and Nevada, she helped develop a nonprofit, nationwide weight-loss program called Lifesteps. She opinionates that HCG is not one of the best diet plans she’s ever encountered, due to its extreme caloric restrictions, which is what likely makes it effective.
It is generally recommended that adults consume at least 1,200 calories per day. “And even that would be lower than what you would want for many people,” Paulsen says. “When you get down to 500 calories a day, you’re not meeting nutrient needs. Plus, you’re probably not getting much physical activity because you don’t have a lot of energy if you’re only at that level of calories.”
Still, people are clamoring for HCG. Patient demand was a factor in the decision of doctors at Forte Family Practice in Las Vegas to begin offering the injections earlier this year. The cost is around $350 for 40 days of injections.
An ideal HCG candidate is one “who actually is ready to lose the weight, who has failed other diets and exercise, and is mentally prepared to do this,” says Dr. Jeff Ng of Forte Family Practice. “It’s not for the casual dieter who comes in and says, ‘I have a wedding to go to in three months, I want to lose 25 pounds, but I’m not going to change my diet.’ That’s not what this diet is for.”
Ng acknowledges the controversy swirling around HCG and says there may be some merit to the theory that the hormone serves merely as a placebo. “Maybe the science hasn’t caught up yet, and this is sort of where we stand right now. We don’t know the actual mechanism of this. It isn’t banned by the FDA. People are desperately looking for a remedy for weight loss and this seems to work.”
He also advises and closely monitors patients for HCG’s potential side effects, including blood clots, depression and headaches, among others. “It’s not a perfect diet,” Ng says, but for some patients the benefits may outweigh the risks. “The type of patient we’re seeing now (is one) who … just gets diagnosed with hypertension, who just gets diagnosed with glucose intolerance and has a strong family history for diabetes, and they know that if they don’t get their weight down,” they are destined for a lifetime of serious health issues.
That is precisely what has Paulsen concerned. With such patients, “You may want to get the weight off them, but you still have to do it in a safe way,” she contends. “A questionable injection that you’re really not sure what the side effects would be, I think, even riskier with somebody who potentially already has some health problems.”
Nevertheless, the considerable buzz surrounding HCG was enough to convince Jennifer, a Las Vegas mother of two children, to give it a try. She visited a local clinic last year and was prescribed the hormone in liquid-drop form.
“I was a little freaked out at first,” she recalls. “It was just something I wanted to try because I had tried Weight Watchers (previously) and wasn’t really successful with that. I thought (HCG) would be quick and easy.”
It was quick, but not necessarily easy. Jennifer says she was “very hungry” throughout her 30-day diet. Meals consisted of a piece of fruit for breakfast and miniscule servings of vegetables and protein at lunch and dinner. “I was starving. I would watch the clock to see when I could eat again.” In the end, she lost 17 pounds.
The hunger pangs weren’t enough to dissuade her from giving HCG another go. Jennifer plans to begin a second round of the diet soon. “I felt really good when I was done, and it was fast and I was able to lose and keep off” the weight.
Such success stories don’t change Yager’s opinion. “What makes me very angry about the HCG diet is that it’s beyond a fad. It’s dangerous and it is preying on people … when they are at their absolute most vulnerable,” Yager says.
“The most important thing (to do) is to stay away from fad diets. No fad diet is going to work … The only diet that is ever going to work for anyone is one where you change your lifestyle and eat well forever.”