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To eat or not to eat; the dieter's dilemma.

Want to lose weight? Don't stop eating. Crash diets can be dangerous, even deadly.

"I have the perfect dress for Valentine's Day--just one month away. But if I don't lose at least 10 pounds it'll never fit. Guess it's time to boll the refrigerator door."

"Football season was great. We celebrated every win with a big burger bash. But now I look like a burger bun. I'll never make weight for wrestling--unless I find a way to drop pounds fast."

If you've ever tried to lose weight by severely restricting your food intake, you probably learned an important lesson--the hard way: Crash diets don't work.

* They are hard to stay on.

* The weight you lose is mostly water not excess fat.

* You usually regain the weight you lose--sometimes more.

But the biggest reason to avoid crash diets is that they can be hazardous to your health--especially for children and teens. Read on to find out why.

DEADLY DIETS

We all need certain nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals) to keep our bodies functiioning, explains diet expert Dr. Victor Herbert. But since young people are still growing, they need even more nutrients than adults do, to build muscles, bones, and other tissues. For this reason, many nutritionists and dietitians recommend that dieting teens consume at least 1,800 calories each day.

What happens if you eat less? You can seriously damage vital organs like your heart, liver, and kidneys, says Herbert. You could even die, he warns.

Herbert knows all about the dangers of crash diets because he has seen a number of young dieters after they have died. He performs medical examinations called autopsies on them to determine the exact causes of death.

For many crash dieters, the cause of death is muscle "wasting," the breakdown of muscle proteins. The muscles deteriorate to supply energy for the body's central command center: the brain.

"Usually," explains nutrition expert Dr. C. Wayne Callaway, "your brain gets all its energy from sugar," the simple molecule that is the building block of all carbohydrates (sugars and starches). But if you're not eating enough carhobydrates, he says, the body goes into "starvation mode" to get energy for the brain from other sources. About two thirds of that energy comes from body fats; one third comes from protein-rich muscles.

To get the energy from muscles, chemical reactions break down the proteins they are made of. Other reactions convert the protein building blocks (amino acids) into sugars the brain can use. The heart, which is made of muscle, is particularly vulnerable, says Dr. Herbert. Autopsies show that many crash dieters "have actually been 'eating' their heart muscle for protein" to keep the brain alive, he says.

VARIETY, THE SPICE OF DIET

Depriving yourself of essential nutrients can backfire in other ways, like slowing down the rate at which your body uses energy, or burns calories. And starving yourself will increase the rate at which you build up emergency stores of energy-rich fat--just what you are trying to lose.

Crash diets can also leave your body short of vitamins and minerals, such as potassium and sodium, says physician George Bray. These minerals are essential for proper nerve and muscle function, among other things. The loss is even greater if the dieters is taking diuretics, drugs that make your body lose water.

Both low-cal diets adn diuretics cause the kidneys to dump larger-than-normal amounts of sodium and potassium into the urine. As the minerals leave the body, they "pull" water along with them.

Losing so much water can cause your blood pressure to drop. And low blood pressure in the brain can make you faint.

But even worse, when you lose so much potassium and sodium, the delicate balance of these, two elements in the blood is destroyed. The result: The heart, which depends on this balance, can stop beating properly. It may even stop beating altogether.

Bones, too, can suffer during long starvation diets. Calcium, the main mineral that makes up bones, is needed for many other jobs in the body, including maintaining nerve function and immune defenses. If you don't get enough calcium in the foods you eat, the mineral moves out of bones and into the bloodstream so it can perform these other functions. Dr. Callaway remembers one young athlete who lost so much calcium from his bones while dieting that he broke his hip and pelvis.

THE RIGHT WAY

So is there any safe way to lose weight? First, says Dr. Callaway, you should consider whether or not you really need to shed pounds. Your doctor can help you decide.

Keep in mind that teenage girls naturally gain weight in their hips and thighs. That's perfectly normal, says Callaways. And teenage guys often bulk up with muscle. That increases body weight, but not fat content.

If you do need to slim down, Dr. Herbert has a simple suggestion: Don't starve yourself. "The sensible way to lost weight," he says, "is just to eat a little less of what you're eating each day, and exercise a little more."

For tips on how to establish healthy eating habits, see "The food pyramid" (p. 20), "Healthy choices" (p. 21), and "New food labels" (right).
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Title Annotation:dieting
Author:Kusinitz, Marc
Publication:Science World
Date:Jan 14, 1994
Words:867
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