Crash Dieting: Dangers Outweigh Benefits
Which crash diets work, and which don’t? Which are healthy – and which can hospitalize you? The Daily Beast polls weight loss experts to find the pros and cons of seven popular regimens.
The very term “ Crash Diet” makes most doctors bristle, as stories pile up about celebrities verging on starvation. In a Lady Gaga biography released earlier this month, her former tour manager claims that binge eating followed by crash diets landed the star in hospital six times last year alone.
Yet there are still people across the country and in late-night infomercials making small fortunes promising quick and dirty methods to lose weight. “A couple of days of crash dieting for a healthy person are not going to cause long-term health problems,” said Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, Founding Director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center and author of “ The Real You Diet”. “If you’re in it for the long haul, you need to be medically monitored. With crash diets, if it sounds too good to be true, it is.”
With a crash diet, you effectively trick yourself into feeling less hungry by eating one or a limited set of healthy items. And well and good if your goal is to fit into a tux for a wedding four weeks from now — as long as you have no illusions of fitting into that tux a second time. Your body often interprets the reduced food intake as starvation. The body’s self-preservation mechanisms kick in and as a result, your metabolism — the chemical process that, among other things, breaks down food and turns into energy — can slow down or go into shock. Then when the new, trimmer you goes back to something approaching your normal diet, the sluggish metabolism makes it easy to regain all that weight -- and more.
• View photos of celebrity yo-yo dieters Then, there’s the dangerous fact that throughout the diet, the incredibly low calorie intake can lead to dizzy spells, mood swings, muscle cramping, and, in serious cases, hear problems. “You don’t know if you’re at risk,” Dr. Fernstrom said. “And the longer the time-frame, the greater the risk.”
“The longer the time-frame, the greater the risk.”
So what’s the skinny on specific crash diets? The Daily Beast surveyed a panel of doctors, nutritionists and weight loss professionals to get the pros and cons of the seven most popular quick fixes.
1. The Cabbage Soup Diet
One of the fad diets of the 1980s and 1990s, the cabbage soup regimen did remarkably well for a plan with such an unappealing name. For seven days, it allows you to have all the tasty and exciting cabbage soup you wanted, combined with some fruit, vegetables and — if you make it past day four — a little beef and brown rice. In recent years, however, it has been updated to include more protein.
Pro: With the extra protein, it’s a low-risk diet.
Con: Unlimited cabbage soup.
2. The Protein Fast
This is one of the more popular options offered by your local drug store. It consists of replacing meals with protein bars and shakes to keep you feeling full and energetic — even a high-grade protein powder stirred into water will do the trick, as long as it is combined with some fruit and vegetables and the caloric intake is kept over 1,000 per day. Essentially, the protein fast cuts out many carbohydrates, which were the target of the popular and temporarily-effective Atkins diet of the 1990s.
Pro: Plenty of tasty options.
Con: It can get expensive quickly and should not be followed in the long term because it leaves you without many crucial nutrients.
3. Three-Day Diet
The menus for three-day diet, at first glance, may seem appealing. There’s chicken, tuna, and even some vanilla ice cream. But the theory behind it is portion-control, which makes those meals significantly less fun. And much smaller. The key ingredient for this one to succeed is willpower, but there are no guarantees that once the portions expand again you won’t follow.
Pro: Real food.
Con: Three days isn’t very long to lose much weight. This is more of a weight maintenance strategy as long as you are careful on the other four days.
4. Grapefruit Diet
The grapefruit diet is exactly what it sounds like. Replace two meals a day with one grapefruit (no sugar, of course) and then have a sensible dinner. Again, this is a diet without much nutritional value that mostly gets rid of water weight.
Pro: Grapefruits aren’t so bad and come full of Vitamin C.
Con: Feeling extremely hungry through the day, making it very tempting to binge at dinner. Dr. Fernstrom suggests you might be better off with a meal-replacement bar or a shake that provides some protein and a small amount of carbohydrates.
5. Seven-Day Detox
Dr. James Gruft, a specialist in pain therapy and nutrition, says the seven-day detox is his preferred method to prescribe, but he refuses to call it a crash diet. As he explains, the most important effect of the treatment is restoring the liver’s capability to process toxins. The way the program works is that for seven days, you rotate seven vegetables, which are consumed exclusively for one day at a time. The most effective vegetables, he says, are broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts, since they are chock full of vitamins (plus they are known cancer-fighters). The vegetables can be prepared in any number of ways, as long as you’re not deep-frying them, for instance.
Pro: Full of long-term benefits for your whole body and effective.
Con: Absolutely requires medical supervision.
6. Scarsdale Diet
The Scarsdale diet, named for the wealthy town full of self-conscious Westchesterites, is a weeklong variation on the Atkins diet, ruthlessly cutting out carbohydrates but leaving in the heart-healthy fats and protein. That means plenty of meat and fish for dinner, but not much food during the rest of the day. It’s half a grapefruit with a cup of tea or coffee for breakfast, and mostly fruit or cheese for lunch.
Pro: Many of the fruit and vegetable portions are unlimited.
Con: This won’t show much progress in the very short term.
7. Water fast
Water may not seem like much of a meal replacement, but that’s the name of this game. For dinner during those seven grueling days, the no-carbs Atkins model applies. Drinking water by the gallon creates the illusion of fullness, if only temporarily, and certainly makes this one of the tougher crash diets to stick to and is absolutely not recommended
Con: Dangerously low calorie intake and a high risk of metabolic shock.