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You Asked: Are popular diets safe?

Experts emphasize lifestyle change over chasing the latest trend
An unusually small piece of bread sits on a plate.

Many of the latest popular diets make wild claims while imposing drastic changes to what you can eat.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Eat all the bacon you want. Just cut out all sweets and bread and load up on fatty foods. Lose weight without exercising, but don’t eat acidic foods like dairy, meat and grains.

“I tell people who come to our diabetes education classes that if a popular diet includes unreasonably drastic restrictions, it can increase their chance of failure,” said Priscilla Benavides, a registered dietitian and health educator for the Texas A&M Coastal Bend Health Education Center. “Also, if what the diet promises sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Benavides points to rigid guidelines taking away variety in our food choices as the main reason popular diets aren’t sustainable.

“Chances are, you’ll get tired of eating the same thing every day,” she said. “If you’re willing to make a big change in your eating habits to be healthier, you must be willing to make it a lifelong commitment or you run the risk of gaining back all the weight you lost.”

Along with outrageous claims and strict dietary guidelines, many popular diets leave out warnings for critical health risks. Some diets provide incomplete or incorrect information. We sat down with Benavides to set the record straight.

Crash dieting

Wanting to shed pounds quickly to meet a short-term goal, such as looking slimmer for an upcoming event, is unsustainable and unhealthy.

“Many popular diets promise things most of us want, such as rapid weight loss,” Benavides said. “But a realistic—and healthy—weight loss goal should be to lose one to two pounds per week.”

Health experts agree that if you lose weight very quickly, you might be losing water weight or even lean muscle. If you’re cutting back on sodium to lose a small amount of water weight quickly, Benavides says to be sure you’re keeping your daily value at or around 2,300 mg if you’re on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet. The Food and Drug Administration recommends using the Nutrition Facts label to help you monitor your daily intake.

Certain diets for initial rapid weight loss can be safe, but adopting lifestyle changes, mainly healthy diet and exercise, are vital for maintaining long-term weight loss.

Warning signs

Diets that place severe limits on entire food groups can have adverse effects on overall health.

“Those with diabetes who take insulin need to be extremely careful if they’re cutting back on carbohydrates,” said Benavides. “For these people, reducing carbs too low while maintaining the same insulin dose can lower their blood sugar to dangerous levels.”

The National Institutes of Health cautions that low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, can cause jitters, blurred vision, difficulty concentrating and, in severe cases, seizures and unconsciousness.

If certain diets call for you to consume more fat, be aware of your cholesterol levels. Too much fat—including saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol—in your diet can increase the risk of heart disease.

If you are allergic to certain foods, such as dairy or nuts, or have medical conditions that restrict or eliminate consumption of certain food groups, be sure to talk to your health care provider about a nutrition plan that works best for you.

Whom can I trust?

The issue of distinguishing between the trustworthy and the biased (and often false) information on the internet goes beyond searching for the pros and cons of popular diets. Therefore, finding reliable, impartial data on healthy eating is paramount.

“It’s very easy to find web articles that lend support to a popular diet,” Benavides said. “Even some blogs can appear to be more reputable than they really are.”

If you want reliable advice, Benavides suggests searching for dieting tips on reputable websites. The American Heart Association, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and the American Diabetes Association provide accurate information. These sites are peer-reviewed and have a more balanced approach. They also tend to align with recommendations by most health professionals.

It is equally important to discuss any dieting plans with your primary health care provider.

Tried and true

For a majority of those wanting to get healthier, most health professionals will defer to the same methods for losing weight and preventing the onset of chronic diseases: eat a well-balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean meats; don’t go overboard on processed foods, sugar and alcohol consumption; and get 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity on most days.

This approach to a healthier lifestyle might not generate buzz and excitement, but it will produce lasting results long after the latest popular diets fade.

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