Should looks take precedence over good health?
“Diet your way to a bikini body.” “Foods that flatten your tummy.” “Lose weight while you eat.” If you glance through fashion and celebrity magazines, there’s almost always a feature on a diet that’s touted to shed unwanted pounds in a span of days or weeks.
The publishers know it sells copies in a culture that obsesses over thin bodies yet embraces a fast-food-and-sedentary lifestyle. However, adults aren’t the only ones struggling with weight issues; so are the children, as more and more of them are becoming obese. For many, fad diets are the solution.
According to Adela Jamorabo-Ruiz, nutrition and food-science professor at Polytechnic University of the Philippines, fad diets – also referred to as food faddism – refer to idiosyncratic diets and eating patterns. They promote any or a combination of the following:
- Adopting as the primary source of diet certain foods or food groups that are considered to be beneficial.
- Omitting foods deemed unhealthy or “bad”.
- Making specific food choices to express a certain lifestyle, such as vegan, which some use as a platform to denounce animal cruelty.
“[Fad diets] come and go into the marketplace and are typically deficient in various ways,” Jamorabo-Ruiz notes in a paper presented at the 13th Congress of ASEAN Pediatric Federation. They often do not provide adequate nutrition that children need to support their growth and development. Unfortunately, some parents are prodding their children to go on a fad diet, while some teens are taking the initiative themselves.[pq]Because teens are extremely conscious of their body image and sensitive to peer pressure, they often fall prey to quick weight-loss plans, that can do more harm than good.[/pq]
While there is too little research that evaluate the impact of fad diets on kids, studies on adults have shown that common short-term effects include dehydration, weakness, fatigue, nausea, headaches, and constipation. In the long run, they can lead to severe deficiencies in amino acids, vitamins, and minerals; bone loss; rickets; liver, heart, and kidney problems.
Experts observe that as obesity becomes more prevalent, the number of weight-loss fad diets also rises. People appear ready to try anything, including the defunct cabbage-soup diet that was introduced years ago but still gets resurrected every now and then, and the more recent banana diet, which advocates eating as many of the fruit as one can at certain times of the day.
Health problems associated with one-food diets are glaringly obvious – some essential nutrients are left out while others are taken in excessive and possibly toxic levels.
The more popular high-protein/low-carbohydrate diets likewise pose significant nutritional issues. Regimens like South Beach, Atkins, and the Zone operates on the principle that by restricting carbohydrate intake, the body is forced to burn fat for energy.
Proponents of these diets also claim that many people are also insulin resistant, a condition that is strongly associated with obesity; hence carbohydrates, the so-called enemy, should be consumed minimally.
“It is not just carbohydrates that affect insulin – protein and fat do too,” avers Jamorabo-Ruiz, who is also a psychologist and the director of curriculum planning and development at the university. “People do not gain weight because they eat carbohydrates, they gain weight when they eat too many calories and do not get enough physical activity.”
While the rapid weight loss often results from carb-restrictive diets, much of it is due to water loss that can cause electrolyte imbalance in the long term. “Also take note that these diets are nutritionally unbalanced because they eliminate food from three to four of the food groups in the Food Guide Pyramid. They tend to be low in vitamins A, B, and C, iron and calcium,” she continues. “For children, such calorie restrictions over time can impair growth.”
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, the fuel that kids need to cope with the demands of a developing body. Minimal intake of carbohydrate-rich foods, like fruits and grains, also means fewer fiber for the digestive system and great for constipation. General lethargy and declining academic performance are the common side effects of hypocaloric diets.
Because high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets work by burning large amounts of fats, ketosis (elevated levels of ketone bodies, byproducts from the breakdown of fats) develops. Therefore, dieters often complain of dehydration, nausea, fatigue, and bad breath, as well. Prolonged ketosis can trigger bone loss, heart disease, and kidney damage. As science has long known, eating red meat frequently – what these diets recommend – increases the risks for cardiovascular conditions and cancer of the colon, breast, and other organs.
Teenagers are also turning to diet pills and supplements to fight the bulge. Jamorabo-Ruiz warns that pills, diuretics, and laxatives are not only unsuccessful, they’re also unsafe. Many works by flushing out water – and along with it vital nutrients – thus causing dehydration, weakness, and light-headedness, and eventually vitamin/mineral deficiencies.
On the other hand, appetite-suppressing pills usually contain compounds like ephedrine which can cause cardiovascular complications and other side effects.
Dieters also frequently find themselves on a roller-coaster cycle of weight loss and weight gain. When calorie consumption drops dramatically, the body may experience both water and lean-muscle loss.
“In the long term, however, the loss of muscle tissue lowers the metabolic rate so the body needs fewer calories from food and drink, and weight-loss slows down,” she explains. Once the person goes back to a normal diet, the slower metabolic rate makes it easier to gain weight. When the waist expands again, it’s another round of radical diet change, thus beginning a pattern known as yo-yo dieting.
Sometimes parents subject their kids to food fads as a lifestyle choice. Jamorabo-Ruiz cites Dutch studies that documented the effects of macrobiotic diets in children:
- High incidence of rickets.
- Low intakes of calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin D.
- Reduced height and weight.
As holistic and alternative diets are gaining wider acceptance, more research is needed to analyze the impact they have on children.
Self-medication using food is likewise a rising trend. In America, cases have been reported of mothers who raised their infants on unorthodox diets because of perceived conditions. A 16-month-old girl believed to be allergic to milk formula developed rickets after being fed on a mixture of applesauce and oatmeal for a year.
Experts speculated that the high phytate content in the oatmeal impaired calcium absorption, causing the bone softening disease, which can lead to deformities. In Europe, rickets were also diagnosed in three children who, for the first six months of their lives, were mainly given commercial soya drink not designed for infants. The calcium content in the beverage was found to be extremely low.
Kwashiorkor, a form of severe malnutrition rate in first world countries, was identified in young American kids who were deliberately given a low-protein diet as a remedy for milk intolerance. In one case, a woman tried to treat her colicky baby by substituting the formula with a vegan product consisting of brown rice and goat’s milk. She learned of supposedly “healthier” diet, which contained only one gram of protein per serving, from a popular woman’s magazine.
To avoid putting children at risk, Jamorabo-Ruiz stresses the importance of seeking professional help before making significant or unconventional dietary changes. “Parents forcing children to adhere to fad diets to the point of severe nutritional disorders is considered a form of child abuse,” she adds.
At the other end of the spectrum, some parents are giving their kids dietary supplements to maximize their growth and development. However, the professor cautions:[pq]Always consult with the pediatrician before doing so, because excessive doses of some vitamins and minerals can cause serious problems in children.[/pq]
For instance, large doses of vitamin B6 can damage sensory nerves, while excess intake of vitamin C can cause diarrhea and urinary stones.
“Childhood is a period of learning and forming life-long habits. Children who learn healthy habits are likely to retain them throughout their lifespan,” she points out. Such habits can be cultivated not by engaging in fad diets but by having parents adopt a balanced and unchaotic eating pattern at home. Eating, after all, should be a pleasant and healthy experience.
Aside from setting a good example, parents should allow their kids occasional junk food.[pq]A rigid diet plan that bans potato chips and the like may only tempt the kids to binge on them behind their parents’ back.[/pq]
– Sunly Coo