Are These Diets Health Hazards?

A woman eating a red apple( – Wait! Before you decide to swear off all fat, carbs, etc. to help you shed weight for the summer, you should be aware that many of the most popular diets today, particularly the ones with strict restrictions, can actually hurt you.

Here’s a breakdown of six of the most popular diets that may not be as safe as you think:

1. Low-Fat Diet
Cutting out fats can help you slim down, but only if you cut calories too. It’s also helpful for people with gallstones, pancreatic disease and certain other gastrointestinal disorders responsible for poor fat absorption, which leads to pain and diarrhea.

The Danger: First, if you’re avoiding all fat, you won’t have much food variety – boredom will strike early. Second, you won’t get all necessary nutrients. Your body needs some fat to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K and a host of health-boosting phytochemicals (plant compounds that act as cancer-fighting antioxidants).

A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that, after eating an oil-free salad of lettuce, spinach, carrots and tomatoes, people absorbed little of the phytochemicals beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and lycopene.

And if you’re cutting fat to lose weight, beware of fat-free cookies and desserts: Most have almost as many calories as regular ones.

Play It Safer: If you’re looking for a low-cholesterol, heart-healthy plan (and we all need one), simply cut out saturated and trans fats. You can still enjoy good-for-you fats found in fish, nuts, avocados, olives and vegetable oils such as olive, canola, sesame and nut. Just don’t go overboard: Fats are calorie-dense (about 120 calories a tablespoon).

An easy way to reduce fat and calories? Switch from full-fat animal products (regular cheeses and fatty meats such as salami and corned beef) to reduced-fat cheeses and lean proteins like fish and skinless chicken.

2. Gluten-Free Diet
Going gluten-free is trendy. Many people blame the protein found in some grains for ailments, including arthritis, depression and autism. So far, research on the impact of a gluten-free/casein-free diet on people with autism has not turned up links.

But only those sensitive to the gluten in wheat, barley and rye, or who have celiac disease – an inherited digestive disorder that damages the small intestine – should follow this diet. It has little benefit and leaves you more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies of iron or B vitamins.

The Danger: “A lot of gluten-free products aren’t fortified,” says Shelley Case, R.D., consulting dietitian and co-author of Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide (Case Consulting Nutrition). “And gluten-free cookies, muffins and hamburger buns are often high in sugar and fat.”

People on gluten-free diets often eat white rice or rice foods, such as rice bread and crackers, she says, but rarely consume whole grains, which have more fiber and nutrients.

Play It Safer: When following a gluten-free diet, eat at least three servings of whole grains a day, such as brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, sorghum or millet. You can find recipes in Case’s book and at

3. Low-Sodium Diet
You need to ease up on salt if you have high blood pressure, kidney disease or congestive heart failure. Unless, of course, your physician tells you otherwise.

Even without a doctor’s warning, you should still cut back: The recommended daily intake is 1,500 milligrams sodium (about 1 teaspoon of salt); most Americans eat more than the upper limit of 2,300 milligrams.

The Danger: The only downside? You’ll be cooking a lot. About 80% of our sodium intake comes from restaurant and prepared foods – not from a heavy hand on the salt shaker. And you may have to find other sources of potassium.

Play It Safer: Get more potassium, which counteracts the harmful effects of too much sodium and lowers blood pressure. Eat several servings daily of potassium-rich foods, such as salmon, broccoli, lima beans, spinach, oranges and tomatoes (unless your doctor nixes potassium because of kidney or other problems).

4. Vegetarian and Vegan Diets
A plant-based diet has many health benefits: It lowers cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon and prostate cancers, says dietitian Mark Rifkin, R.D., president of Preventive Nutrition Services in Baltimore.

Vegetarians avoid animal flesh like beef, chicken and fish, but may eat eggs and dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese. Vegans avoid all animal products including eggs and dairy.

The Danger: You could become deficient in protein, iron, calcium, zinc, iodine, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins D and B-12.

Also, many vegetarian diets – like the typical American meat diet – may be loaded with grease, fat and added sugars too.

“Pizza, fries, soda, ice cream, chips and cheese balls are, after all, vegetarian,” Rifkin says. So going vegetarian is not necessarily a “guarantee of good health.”

Play It Safer: If you cut out animal products completely, you’ll need to get vitamin B-12 from supplements or fortified foods. Vegans and vegetarians (who don’t eat fish) might become deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, iodine and vitamin D. Supplements can help. Here are the daily recommended amounts:

• Vitamin D: 400 IUs for adults, 600 IU for people 71 and older.
• Vitamin B12: 2.6 mcg (micrograms)
• Iodine: 150 mcg
• Omega-3: 1,500-2,000 mg of plant-based and 500-1,800 mg from fish

See a registered dietitian experienced in vegetarian meal-planning to review your diet.

5. Low-Carbohydrate Diet
Low-carb diets like Atkins have helped many people lose weight and curb appetite too. But like low-fat diets, they only work if you trim enough calories. You may shed pounds initially, but when compared to other weight-loss plans, that advantage usually disappears after several months to a year.

The Danger: If you’re filling up on unhealthy foods like bacon, greasy burgers and steaks, you’re not doing yourself any favors. They’re loaded with heart-clogging fat and cholesterol.

Plus, many carb-rich foods are necessary for your body, such as milk, yogurt, fruit, juice, oats, cereals, beans and corn. Without them, you won’t get enough fiber to stay regular and keep your gastrointestinal tract healthy.

In a healthy diet, carbs also promote memory and learning. A 2008 Tufts University study found that low-carb dieters didn’t perform as well on cognitive tasks as participants on a balanced plan that included carbs.

Play It Safer: Pick better carbs. Swap highly processed carbs like sweets, mac ‘n’ cheese and cereal bars for unprocessed or minimally processed foods like whole fruit, whole oats, kidney beans, sweet potatoes and whole-wheat pasta.

6. Diabetic Diet
Most diabetic diets control carbs because those raise blood glucose the most. Even if you don’t have diabetes, limiting unhealthy carbs such as sugar and white-flour foods can boost your health.

The Danger: Blood glucose control is critical to avoiding diabetes-related kidney, nerve and eye disease. That’s why it’s so tempting to focus all your dietary efforts on keeping your glucose in healthy range. (The target numbers are highly individualized, so ask your doctor for yours).

Play It Safer: Focus on your total diet, not just high-carbohydrate foods. Instead of severely restricting carb intake, spread them out evenly over your day. You’ll have more moderate jumps in blood glucose levels, and you’ll enjoy health-boosting, disease-fighting foods from each food group.

Use caution with sugar-free products, too. Some are sweetened with sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol and maltitol which your body can’t absorb well and may cause gas, cramping and bloating.

Work with a registered dietitian/certified diabetes educator who is also a certified diabetes educator to help plan meals to target your blood glucose.

Teen Weight Loss: Getting Started

Doctor taking measures of overweight mid-adult woman( — Your teen’s weight is affecting his health — physically or mentally — so as a parent, you’re concerned. Perhaps your teen has been diagnosed with a health problem common in overweight teens, such as high blood pressure or sleep apnea. Or maybe your teen has expressed anxiety about his weight.

Whatever the reason, you want to help. But it’s not easy for a parent to know how to help. While your teen might feel ashamed or even angry about his weight, he may also be resentful if you try to get involved. As much as your teen may want to tackle his problems without help, your involvement in managing his weight is important.You can help your teen make changes to his diet and exercise habits that will put him on a healthier track.


Set the Stage for Success

Helping overweight teens make healthy choices is complex. To help with teen weight management or teen weight loss, here are a few things you can do to set the stage for success.

Consult with your teen’s pediatrician regarding your overweight teen’s BMI. The first step is to talk with your teen’s pediatrician about your teen’s weight. Ask the doctor to calculate your teen’s body mass index (BMI). BMI is one way to measure body fat percentage. Your doctor will compare your child’s weight and height with other teens her age. If your teen falls within the overweight or obese range, talk with the pediatrician about what your teen’s weight loss goals should be. Whether weight loss is recommended will depend on several things:

  •     How overweight he is
  •     If he has weight-related health problems
  •     If he has been trying to lose weight and, if so, how long he’s been trying

The initial goal for the majority of overweight teens may be to maintain their weight and “grow” into it as they get taller. Keep in mind that even maintaining his current weight is much healthier than continuing to gain weight excessively. When weight loss is advised — doctors usually don’t recommend losing more than 2 pounds a week, at most.

Talk with your teen to get their approval. If your overweight teen needs focus on managing or losing weight, they have to approve of the approach. They have to be involved. Of course, getting your teen interested in anything might feel like a challenge and teen weight loss can seem like an especially hard sell. Talk to him. Don’t tell your teen that they need to lose weight. Ask questions instead of making declarations — and really listen to what he has to say. Ask, “How do you feel about your weight?” Then, be quiet and listen. If your teen is resistant, lay off the topic for a little while. Hopefully you will have planted a seed for thought, and they’ll be more open the next time you bring up the question.

Be your teen’s healthy lifestyle coach.  It may not seem like it, but you have more of an influence over your teen than you think. The trick is not to force a healthy lifestyle on your overweight teen. Instead, your role should be more like a coach than a sheriff. Encourage your teen to find his own incentives to change his food and lifestyle choices.  Studies show what may sound like common sense: Overweight teens don’t feel happy about being overweight. Overweight teens don’t want to be teased at school. But overweight teens do want to feel in control.

Start with changes at home. Your overweight teen is not the only one who needs to make changes to his way of life. To help your teen succeed, you — and everyone else in the family — need to embrace a healthier lifestyle, too. If you single out your overweight teen and only have him improve his health habits, it won’t work. Instead, your teen is likely to feel criticized and punished, which is much less likely to motivate him than striving for a healthier way of living. Everyone in the family will benefit when you set health goals together.

Share your struggle. Not sure you’re up for the challenge of being a healthy role model? Relax a bit. It’s OK if your teen sees you struggling to build new habits. Let them hear your frustration as you waver between choosing a healthy snack like carrots and peanut butter versus an old junk food standby like chips and dip. Let them know that it can be hard to make the time to go for a walk around the neighborhood and find the motivation to do it. But remind them and yourself that feel good afterwards is worth it. Turn the challenges you face into opportunities to ask for your teen’s support and to work together ways to make healthy lifestyle choices easier for both of you.

Introduce Lifestyle Changes

Helping your overweight teen when weight management or with weight loss is recommended involves making some lifestyle changes. As anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows, these changes aren’t always easy. But they’re essential — and doable if you’re patient and consistent in making small improvements in your habits. The first 2 areas to focus on are diet, your teen’s food choices, and physical activity, or exercise.


The best-kept secret for encouraging a healthy diet and changing the way your teen eats is to keep it simple. Start with these 5 basic steps.

1. Lose the soda. One teen weight program in California had a lot of success by just asking overweight teens to cut out sodas and sports drinks and replace them with water.
2. Make fruits and vegetables visible and accessible. Eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks and sweets will help your teen feel full and consume fewer calories. Have fruits and veggies cut, clean, and waiting in the front of the fridge so they’re easy to find and eat.
3. Encourage breakfast every day. Teens will often give up breakfast to sleep in late but this leads to overeating at lunch time and junk food cravings later in the day. So, if your teen is rushing out the door, hand her a smoothie made out of yogurt and fresh fruit or an apple and wedge of cheese to eat on the way to school.
4. Don’t keep any junk food in the house. Although you have limited control of what your overweight teen eats away from home, you can offer lots of healthy choices for snacking at home.
5. Eat at home. Several studies have shown that restaurant foods contain an average of 33% more calories than the same food cooked at home. Further, a study found that the more a family ate together, the less likely a teen was to be overweight.


Health experts recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day to stay fit and to help prevent obesity in teens. To help with teen weight loss, your child needs to build up to an hour of energetic daily exercise. Try these 2 tactics to get your teen moving:

  • Coach your teen to set small achievable goals. Starting with 10 minutes a day is fine — as long as your teen actually does it. Then have them slowly add a few minutes every day. Small, achievable steps will help them have successes which will build them self-confidence and keep them motivated.
  • Get the whole family involved. Take up hiking as a family or go on bike rides together. Getting family members pedometers can encourage everyone to take more steps. And giving your teen their own pedometer will give them an easy way to monitor their own activity level.

Other Changes

Helping with weight maintenance or teen weight loss isn’t just about food and exercise. Experts say that other changes — like removing the TV from a teen’s bedroom to cut back on screen time and encouraging them to get enough sleep — can also help.

Expert Support

If making lifestyle changes isn’t enough to help your teen manage his weight, get some outside help.

When it comes to dealing with obesity in teens, many families get stuck. Talking to someone outside the family can give you perspective and direction — and help your overweight teen set realistic goals. If you and your teen have gotten into conflicts about her weight, outside advice could help defuse the situation.

You have many options.
Start with a pediatrician, a dietitian, or another expert in obesity in teens. Seeing a therapist, such as a psychologist or a social worker with a background in teen weight loss, can also help. Many teenagers who are overweight also struggle with depression, so therapy can have additional benefits.

Treatment approaches for obesity in teens differ. Experts disagree to some degree on the best approach. Some stress the importance of monitoring to track progress. Strategies include regular weigh-ins and keeping track of food and exercise. Others think that close accounting doesn’t work. Ultimately, you have to decide what approach feels right for your family. Your teen may benefit most from programs that are oriented to kids his or her age. Here are some options to check on. Check to see if your medical insurance plan will help cover the costs of weight management programs.

Weight loss programs for teens right in your doctor’s office. Some doctors may have programs that include sessions with dietitians or behavior experts.

Pediatric weight management centers in a hospital or separate center. These may be similar to programs in doctors’ offices and offer the support of several experts.

Other Treatment Options

What happens if these steps don’t help your teen manage his weight? Then you and your teenager — with a health care provider’s input — might consider some other treatment options for obesity in teens.

Medication. There are no prescription weight-loss medicines currently recommended for teens. Weight-loss medicines can have serious health risks and side effects. If you’re curious about the use of medication or supplements for weight loss, talk with your teen’s pediatrician. Many overweight teens experiment with over-the-counter weight-loss pills. These supplements are ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. If your teen is taking any, talk with him about the risks, and strongly encourage him to talk with his doctor or a pharmacist about potential negative effects.

Surgery. An operation to reduce the size of the stomach can help obese teens who haven’t been able to lose weight any other way. It can be effective, but it has potentially serious risks. This procedure also may not be covered by insurance.

Be aware that surgery, on its own, won’t cure obesity in teens. Your child will need to follow a special diet — and be vigilant for signs of nutritional deficiencies — for the rest of his life. This step should be taken only after careful consideration and a full evaluation by a team of doctors and other child obesity experts.

Obesity in Teens: Tips for Parents

Making significant lifestyle changes that affect the whole family can be daunting — and your teen may be resistant at first. These suggestions can help keep things moving forward.

Keep it simple; don’t change everything at once. Don’t suddenly outlaw all sweets, demand 2-hour jogs, and hide the video game console in the garage. That will backfire and set your teen up for failure. Start with the simplest changes — ones that your overweight teen can complete and feel successful with. Focus on doing them every day, and then increase them over time.

Don’t micromanage. If you’re commenting on every bite your overweight teen puts in their mouth, they’re likely to get angry and withdraw. Plus you’re damaging their confidence to trust their own decision making. Remember that they are attempting to make some big changes in their life, and it will take time. They’ll slip up here and there, and that’s normal. What you want to see is progress, so try to keep the big picture in mind. Remember, successful change can sometimes be 2 steps forward, 1 step back.

Stress a positive body image. In our popular media, thin is beautiful. That can be demoralizing for a heavy kid. You won’t be able to counter the influences of our culture single-handedly — or take away the pain caused by teasing or bullying at school. But you can emphasize what’s important. Make it a personal goal for yourself to comment on your teen’s strengths and positive qualities regularly. Let your teen know that they are wonderful, and you love them unconditionally. Help them see that the people who make judgments based on appearance are not seeing them for the wonderful person they are.

Emphasize the medical, not the superficial.
When you talk about healthy eating and exercise, your teen might feel like you’re ashamed of how he looks. Emphasize that you’re only trying to help because of the serious medical risks of obesity. Talk about diabetes, arthritis, and liver disease. Motivate them by reminding them that making the efforts to be healthy will help them do the things he likes to do more easily. You’re not judging his character. You don’t want them to look “better.” You’re helping them be healthier.