Junkfood Science: March Diet Wackiness

April 01, 2007

March Diet Wackiness

Diet quackery has been around for more than a century. In honor of the first day of April, we note a great April Fool’s Day hoax. In 2000, Esporta Health Clubs announced a new line of fat socks to help people lose weight. The Museum of Hoaxes describes it among their top 100 Best April Food Day Hoaxes of All Times:

Dubbed “FatSox," these revolutionary socks could actually suck body fat out of sweating feet. The invention promised to “banish fat forever." The socks employed a patented nylon polymer called FloraAstraTetrazine that had been "previously only applied in the nutrition industry." The American inventor of this polymer was Professor Frank Ellis Elgood. The socks supposedly worked in the following way: as a person's body heat rose and their blood vessels dilated, the socks drew “excess lipid from the body through the sweat." After having sweated out the fat, the wearer could then simply remove the socks and wash them, and the fat, away.

March 2007 was a big month for some of the wackiest diets of the year! These are not April Fool’s jokes, though. People are actually taking this stuff seriously and paying good money.

Power of Mental Energy

Mental powers to think our way thin was especially popular this month.

The winner in this woo category goes to The Secret, another as seen on Oprah diet. Creator, Rhonda Byrne, says that by going back through history to 3500 BC, she discovered the secret: the Law of Attractions. According to the Law of Attraction, our feelings and thoughts are energy frequencies and vibrations that affect world events, from the workings of the entire cosmos to interactions among people. According the Byrne, “if someone is overweight, it came from thinking ‘fat thoughts’ and thinking ‘perfect thoughts’ will result in a perfect weight.”

Her diet and lifestyle philosophy is purported to be quantum physics in action. The Secret followers say it works with building wealth and curing disease, too.

Victor J. Stenger, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and author of The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology, wrote a description of quantum physics as is being used in New Age and modern mystical circles to support beliefs that the mind creates reality and affects healing, illness and aging:

Quantum mechanics, the centerpiece of modern physics, is misinterpreted as implying that the human mind controls reality and that the universe is one connected whole that cannot be understood by the usual reduction to parts. However, no compelling argument or evidence requires that quantum mechanics plays a central role in human consciousness or provides instantaneous, holistic connections across the universe. Modern physics, including quantum mechanics, remains completely materialistic and reductionistic while being consistent with all scientific observations....interpretations of quantum effects need not so uproot classical physics, or common sense, as to render them inoperable on all scales-especially the macroscopic scale on which humans function. Newtonian physics, which successfully describes virtually all macroscopic phenomena, follows smoothly as the many-particle limit of quantum mechanics. And common sense continues to apply on the human scale.

His full article can be read here.

Along the same lines was the Beck Diet Solution in the news this month. The author says it’s not a diet, but a psychological program to “think thin and lose weight.” If past diets have failed, she says, it’s because you just didn’t know how to diet. She claims her program “teaches you how to talk back to your sabotaging thoughts in a convincing way” so that you’ll lose weight permanently. It’s based on cognitive behavior therapy. To be successful, people have to deal with "psychological problems" such as feeling deprived, cope with hunger and cravings, and choose a nutritious diet.

P.T. Barnum Category

The secrets for how to create and sell a money-making diet were in evidence this month: Create a gimmick to restrict eating, any gimmick will do. Make a sensational claim that your diet and ‘eating right’ can do everything from cure cancer to keep one young. And if you can sell a nutritional supplement, diet food or beauty product along with your book, so much the better.

The Reverse Diet advises eating dinner for breakfast and breakfast for dinner, “if you really want to lose weight.” The author’s favorite dinner is now Cheerios and she says she’s lost 162 pounds simply by eating her meals in reverse. Meatloaf with rice and veggies for breakfast, anyone?

The GO Diet capitalizes on scaring people about bad food, especially toxins in our foods, and says that after reading this diet, “you’ll be more likely to drink the toilet bowl cleaner before you’d eat the foods that are unhealthy for you ever again.” Sounds yummy, doesn’t it? The chapters espouse that our food is doing terrible things to our bodies, and that obesity is due to overeating bad, addictive foods.

For those looking for an all-in-one diet and make-over, a doctor offers the Revival Slim and Beautiful Diet, “the inside-out makeover diet plan for dramatic weight loss and improved skin, hair, and nail appearance, year round.” It also promises better energy with protein, low-glycemic “smart-carbs” and hormonal balancing. The author turns out to be the CEO of Physicians Laboratories which sells soy products and supplements which are claimed to help you lose weight by eating just one soy bar a day.

Coincidentally, you may have missed a study just published in the March issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The inside-out makeover diet author surely must hope we didn’t hear about it. This study examined the ability of soy protein-rich foods and supplements to enhance weight loss. The researchers followed two groups of overweight women on similar calorie-restrictive diets, with one group consuming 15 grams of soy protein per 1,000 calories each day. There was no difference in the body weight or fat mass the women lost, their waist circumference, or in any biological health measures such as lipid, glucose or insulin levels. The researchers concluded:

Our results do not lend support to the emerging notion that soy-protein-rich foods could be considered potential functional foods for weight management, in the quantities consumed in this study.

And the most over-the-top diet of the month was the Fruit Diet. The press release was timed with the latest Produce for Better Health Foundation’s launch of its “Fruits and Veggies — More Matters,” we examined here. According to the Fruit Diet creator: “Fruit, fruit ... the perfect meal ... the more you eat ... the better you feel!” It’s authored by a California fitness club owner, personal trainer, and diet expert. He also owns a nutrition supplement company selling protein powders. The Fruit Diet takes his earlier Fruit Flush 3 Day Detox diet to the next level and claims:

If five daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables are suggested for good health, what would happen if you accelerated that number to 20 or more daily servings? It could radically change your life by turning back the hands of time, softening your skin, lowering your body fat levels, lowering your blood pressure, firming your muscles, lowering cholesterol levels, improving your eyesight, while eliminating joint pain, indigestion, backaches, headaches, and constipation.

Cautionary Tales

Two diet fads in the news this month deserve a more serious note because they both target young people and bring special cautionary notes for healthcare professionals and consumers.

The New York Times reported on the “Latest Teen Diet Craze: Logging On to Get Thin:”

In recent years, users began moving to more mainstream social networking sites including Xanga and LiveJournal, setting up individual blogs detailing their diets or using mantras including "hunger hurts, but starvin' works." Online, the countdown continues daily: "HipsterXx forever" hopes to drop to 79 pounds by spring break; "Diet Soda Chick" counts calories before her prom; and hundreds of teens join the "Skinny by Summer07" group at the social networking site Xanga.

They count calories online, set diet goals online and share -- often harmful -- weight-loss tips online....However, they rarely find sound health advice, researchers say. Instead, the Web offers what appears to be a growing number of online dieting communities that encourage risky weight-loss measures by making these practices seem more socially acceptable. Much like teens who go online in search of friendship only to be targeted by predators, experts say, some who use the Web for dieting tips may find themselves vulnerable to serious eating disorders....

There they post their daily calorie intake, tracking each Pringle, say, or glass of water consumed. At Xanga, one girl wrote of eating just a green apple in a day, and she counted every slice. On their personal pages, they post "thinspiration" pictures: photos of ultra-thin models and celebrities with jutting hip and collar bones, skeletal legs. They proffer their own weight-loss tips and ask for others. Researchers have begun taking note....

After discussing eating disorder studies and experts' concerns, however, it ended with a popular statement that was a complete disconnect saying, “calorie counting doesn’t have to be harmful,” as if young people can somehow make the distinction and that calorie counting is normal eating.

Which brings us to BioSlim. It’s a weight loss system designed by a doctor and marketed via both online and infomercials, complete with testimonials, and before and after photos. While not new, the attention it’s been getting is. It tells viewers that all other diets and weight loss methods don’t work and: “There is only one way known to science to lose weight healthfully and permanently, and that is the BioSlim way.” It includes all-natural supplements that are a “complete health-improvement program” to improve health and energy levels, in addition to creating weight loss without calorie counting, dieting or exercise. The formulas do this by “normalizing your metabolism.” Weight regain is supposedly minimized because their supplements are said to ensure muscle is spared during weight loss.

Their Ultra SlimTone Formula, a blend of the “most potent nutrients in the world,” is accompanied by an Ultra Accelerator to “kick-start your success” and an Ultra vitamin-mineral formula for vital nutrients to “energize you as your weight comes off easily and naturally.” In addition to the weight loss supplements, there’s a special breakthrough anti-wrinkle beauty cream to “firm and tone the appearance of the skin during weight loss.”

But obesity is a worse problem for kids, they say. “You can give your child the gift of a healthy lean body with the BioSlim Youth System.” For kids 7 years old and up, they offer a special youth system with Vita/Min Plus Youth and SlimTone Youth Formula in chewables “so kids who can’t swallow tablets can take them every day.” Those over age 13 are encouraged to move to the adult products. For kids, there’s an accompanying video, a “kid-friendly How to Lose Weight, Look Great! book,” interactive CD, a wall poster for their room and carrying case for the chewable wafers.

According to their website, there is “a perfect, safe blend of natural ingredients” in the youth formulas which are said to speed and aid weight loss, stimulate metabolism, break down fat, and remove excess fluids from the body. They contain: Citrus, auranteum, cotinus, quercetin, pyuruvate, coenzyme Q10, glucomannan, atractylodes and astragalus, chromium, Chinese thoroughwax (bupleurum), gardenia, balloon flower (platycodon), other vitamins and other natural nutrients.

Case study on an “all-natural” diet aid

While the term “natural” may lead us to believe a product is safer, that’s not necessarily so. By not being a pharmaceutical, natural herbal supplements are not subject to the same testing and review required for FDA approval, nor the same oversight to ensure purity and that they contain the herbs and potencies as listed on the label. Even if a product is toxic, the FDA is only able to issue warning letters, rather than bans; letters which are often ignored. And what about the medical claims? It is buyers beware. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center hosts a searchable database with evidence-based information on herbs, botanicals, supplements and other products that may be of help for consumers considering buying or purchasing any such product. It’s available free here.

In May 2000 and April of 2001, the FDA issued warning letters to supplement makers and healthcare professionals and a Consumer Advisory about dietary supplements and herbal products containing aristolochic acid. With normal usage these products had been associated with “permanent kidney damage, sometimes resulting in kidney failure that has required kidney dialysis or kidney transplantation. In addition, some patients have developed certain types of cancers, most often occurring in the urinary tract.” Included in the products the FDA found contained this ingredient was BioSlim’s Weight Loss System Slim Tone Formula.

The FDA’s warning letter to medical professionals outlined the evidence for profound international safety concerns from the use of products containing aristolochic acid, stating:

We urge you to review your cases of unexplained renal disease, particularly interstitial fibrosis associated with end-stage renal disease, as well as cases of urothelial tract tumors, in order to determine the use of dietary supplements or "traditional medicines" in these patients.

On May 31, 2000, the FDA issued a letter to health care professionals concerning the nephrotoxicity and carcinogenicity of botanical products containing aristolochic acid. During this time period, FDA also issued a letter to representatives of the dietary supplement trade associations urging that their members review their manufacturing procedures to ensure that botanical products are free of aristoclochic acid. In addition, FDA issued an import alert providing for the detention of any botanical ingredients that were either labeled as containing the plant Aristolochia or may be confused with it.

* In Belgium, there have been approximately 100 cases of renal disease in patients who had participated in a "slimming regimen" from 1990-1992 consisting, in part, of a weight-reducing pill containing powdered herbs. The major pathological lesion consisted of extensive renal interstitial fibrosis with atrophy and loss of tubules. At least 70 of these patients have required either dialysis or transplantation...In 1996, it was reported that aristolochic acid-related DNA adducts had been detected in renal tissue from 5 of the original Belgian patients.

* In August 1999, 2 new cases of interstitial fibrosis were reported from the UK in which the patients had consumed botanical preparations containing aristolochic acid. Both patients have developed end-stage renal failure; one has already been transplanted and the other is awaiting transplant.

* A study conducted in Belgium reported that among 39 patients with end-stage renal failure from the original Belgian cohort, who had agreed to undergo prophylactic surgery, there were 18 cases (46%) of urothelial carcinoma. All tissue samples analyzed contained aristolochic acid-related DNA adducts. The authors concluded that "our data suggest that aristolochia toxins (aristolochic acids and also possibly other derivatives) cause renal disease and urothelial cancer."...

* Two patients in the U.S. have been recently reported who developed end-stage renal disease in association with the use of botanical preparations containing aristolochic acid. The first patient began using herbal "medicines" in 1994. She progressed to end-stage renal disease within 8 months. A renal biopsy showed extensive interstitial fibrosis with focal lymphocytic infiltration. A renal transplant was performed in 1996. Laboratory analyses of the patient's botanical products indicated the presence of aristolochic acid ...

In the October 16, 2003 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors from the Carcinogenic Potency Database Project at the University of California, Berkeley, reported that despite the FDA actions, they had identified 19 products still being sold that contained aristolochic acid and another 95 being sold through the internet. Their letter to the FDA includes a list of these products. The Canadian Medical Association issued a similar warning about the continued availability of natural herbal supplements containing aristolochic acid and an article in the August 31, 2004 issue of the CMA Journal noted the various names that consumers may find this ingredient listed on labels:

BioSlim’s website currently assures customers that their products no longer contain aristolochic acid and that only very tiny, harmless levels had been found by the FDA. It says that any evidence for negative effects had been “uncertain and preliminary” and that “there is still no clear evidence regarding any ill effects of regular dosing of aristolochic acid in healthy individuals.”

For parents or children considering these products and other similar products, let’s look at a couple of the ingredients in the children’s formula for evidence of safety and effectiveness.

Astragalus. This is often included in weight loss formulas for its laxative effects. According to the National Institutes of Health drug information database, Astragalus is a Chinese herb which is claimed to have anti-cancer and anti-viral properties; to improve function of the heart, immune system, liver and kidneys; and is used to treat a plethora of conditions from AIDS, hemorrhoids, foot ulcers to weight loss. But, it states, “none of the purported effects have been demonstrated in reliable, quality human studies.” And the NIH especially notes that there is insufficient scientific data to recommend it for children. Based on limited human research on safety, astragalus appears to affect blood sugar, necessitating serum glucose monitoring by a healthcare professional; may increase risk of bleeding, affect blood pressure and electrolyte balances, and increase growth hormone levels.

Citrus auranteum. This is also known as bitter orange and has become a common replacement for ephedra in weight loss supplements. A report by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, on a randomized placebo controlled trial of this herb found no statistically significant benefit for weight loss. The double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled trial published in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy found that blood pressure and heart rate significantly increased after even a single dose among users as compared to the placebo and remained elevated for up to five hours. Harvard researchers reported on a clinical case of an anoretic teen who’d been taking a Citrus auranteum supplement for weight loss and its effects had masked her life-threatening bradycardia and hypotension.

Dr. Christine Haller, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, led research on bitter orange that was published in the American Journal of Medicine. These researchers concluded that the risk for bitter orange supplements outweigh their unproven benefits. Bitter orange contains a chemical that is similar to ephedrine and when used in combination with the other ingredients in “ephedra-free” supplements, raises blood pressure and heart rate at the same level as seen with ephedra. Dr. Haller: told WebMD: “It is hard to identify who may react real badly to the heart stimulation effects. Even if people ask their doctor, we don’t know who might develop heart rhythm problems or have a stroke.”

The bottom line is the same one that the evidence brings us back to time and again. In the long run, no weight loss measure has been proven safe or effective.

“Considering what is currently known about obesity and its treatment, we believe it remarkable that there have been so few calls for reexamination of the fundamental premises that form basic health care policy regarding weight loss,” David Garner, Ph.D. and Susan Wooley, Ph.D., concluded in their landmark 1991 review of 500 diet and weight loss studies. “We believe that it is legitimate to question when further dietary treatment of obesity should be put to rest both as a subject of investigation and as a clinical technique. ... [W]e can enhance the possibilities of meaningful scientific progress in other areas by reallocating resources currently invested in developing, applying, and studying dietary treatment that have little rational hope of success.”

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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