Doc says fad diets may be more harmful than healthy

By Caroline Young |
Image by Victoria Van Arnam
Photos by Jonathan Hermes

Flagler senior Christina Arzapalo lost 40 pounds within three months of being on a fad diet. Only one thing went wrong – her hair was falling out.

“Everything was great at first,” Arzapalo said. “The basic diet is a lot of eggs, nuts and lean proteins like turkey … you can’t have any caffeine or juice or fruit for the first two weeks and that was the hardest.”

She was on the South Beach diet because her whole family tried it together and she wanted to be healthier.

“I loved losing weight so easily, but I’ve always liked having long hair and I knew something wasn’t right if it was falling out.”

After Arzapalo went to a nutritionist for help, she found out she had certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies because she was only eating the same few foods.

Nearly 68 percent of the American population is over a healthy body weight and are turning to fad diets, according to, a health and lifestyle website.

“There is no one diet that fits everybody well,” said Dr. Pierre Angier, D.O., an osteopathic physician in St. Augustine, who received his undergraduate degree in human nutrition and his medical degree in osteopathic medicine.

“The problem I have with a lot of so-called ‘fad diets’ is that the authors of those diets are often trying to sell a book of course … which is OK,” Angier said. “But they make it sound like that diet is the only diet for everyone.”

Fad diets, such as the Atkins, the South Beach and the Cabbage Soup, have been popular quick ways to lose weight.

But the American Heart Association said that fads can “undermine” people’s health, cause disappointment when weight is regained later and create physical discomfort.

Diet fads can cause nutritional deficiencies because the restrictions prevent people from receiving all the nutrients for a healthy diet, according to the AHA.

The Skinny on Fads

Angier said the success of a particular diet depends on the individual.

“You never quite know what’s going to happen,” Angier said. “Most people, for example, if you put them on a low fat diet, will lower cholesterol 25 percent … for other people it doesn’t make a difference.”

“There are some diets that people consider fad diets that are very legitimate options for them,” he said. “I almost tell folks it usually takes some experimentation. … It’s not likely they will get the right diet the first time.”

Angier said diets free of or very low in carbohydrates, such as the Atkins diet, can be effective for one person, but it could destroy another person’s cholesterol.

“For a low-carb diet, the South Beach can be a lot safer … but even that isn’t for everyone,” Angier said.

“Fads are temporary and if people don’t have the structure to take their great success — their 10 pounds, 15 pounds, 20 pounds — it’s all a big waste,” said Rosalinda Sanquiche, a Weight Watchers meeting leader, who lost 60 pounds after joining the club.

Before Weight Watchers, Sanquiche experimented with fads such as the banana diet and the cabbage soup diet. They were both failures that did not last for more than a few days.

“I was hungry and completely unable to sustain them,” she said. “There was a detox stage with smoothies made out of celery … I don’t like vegetables so that one wasn’t going to last for me.”

Her cabbage soup diet consisted of “really small breakfasts,” cabbage soup for lunch and cabbage soup with a “reasonable” meal at dinner.

“I encourage people to use common sense,” Angier said. “If they feel really bad on a diet, they need to reconsider it. A lot of people just keep on trucking even if they feel miserable on it, and it’s a matter of time before they go off it and it’s going to be a waste of time.

Although Sanquiche said she is not a big advocate for fad diets, she supports anyone who is willing to take that step to try and achieve a healthier weight.

“If something like the Atkins or NutriSystem or South Beach … if that will motivate someone to lose the weight, I want to be supportive of that desire,” she said. “Unfortunately there is too much evidence that those kinds of diets are unsustainable, so in the long run, it ends up being really unhealthy. ”

Arzapalo said that fad diet results do not last and that people are better off losing weight slowly.

“Sometimes it’s just better to lose weight the slow way,” she said. “Like one to two pounds a week and not completely restricting yourself altogether.”

A Healthy Weight For a Better Life

Angier always tells his patients to set goals and to at least know what his or her body mass index (BMI), blood sugars and cholesterol levels are before starting any diet.

“After they’ve been on it for a few months and think it is the right diet, they should get those tests done again and see if they are on the right track,” Angier said. “It takes a few minutes … it is only 25 or 30 bucks to get those tests done.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a person with a BMI under 18.5 percent is underweight and a person with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 percent is overweight. The normal BMI rate is anywhere from 18.5 to 24.9 percent and 30 to 39.9 percent is considered obese.

“Do whatever it takes to get the weight off … your health depends on it,” Sanquiche said.

Nearly 34 percent of Americans are considered obese, according to the World Health Organization.

“Obesity is a life threatening disease, just like anorexia,” Angier said.

The WHO reported that obesity could lead to chronic diseases including stroke, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease and particular cancers.

“I think losing weight in a country that is so obese is hugely important,” Sanquiche said.

Kicking Bad Habits

Both Sanquiche and Angier think that it is easy for a person to sabotage his or her diet when unhealthy food choices seem inescapable.

“We are constantly being bombarded with bad food,” Sanquiche said. “Pretty much, the classroom is the only place you gather where you are not expected to serve food.”

Angier suggests that people should use the Alcoholics Anonymous, “one day at a time” philosophy when it comes to dieting.

“Try to make every day count,” he said. “If you have a day or a meal that’s not what you consider healthy, forgive yourself and move on … people are really hard on themselves.”

However, Angier believes discipline is necessary for people to lose weight successfully and healthily.

“They’re doing pretty well for a few days and then they go out with their friends, have a drink or two … they have tasty food … everyone orders desserts and they say, ‘Oh what the heck, one dessert’.”

If dieters want serious results, Angier places heavy emphasis on finding some kind of coach, whether it is a doctor, dietitian or a program.

“They can help them find what motivates them and help determine the obstacles that might be expected and how they will overcome them,” Angier said.

Sanquiche said the mixture of men and women who belong to Weight Watchers experience all sorts of obstacles, but one of the hardest is changing eating behaviors.
“It is such a personal battle … so much of it is psychological,” she said. “The way we eat is habit and it’s really a talent to break habits.”

But she believes in the program because it is realistic with its healthy rule of losing a half pound to two pounds a week and no food deprivation.

“It is wise in that it expects you to live your life without dieting … without doing anything faddish like only eating protein or only drinking milkshakes.

“If you have a favorite food you can have it when you want it,” Sanquiche said. “Sure you can eat that cheesecake, but we suggest that you eat cherries, fruits, carrots, brown rice … Save the cheesecake for a special treat and when you do eat it, really savor it.”

Angier said that a person must find “palatable” substitutes for his or her diet, especially if it is low fat. Otherwise, they will not stick to it.

“If your family had bacon eggs every Saturday morning, it’s going to be very hard not to,” he said. “It’s going to be very hard to reprogram yourself.”

Back to the Basics

Keeping things simple and using a little common sense are two rules Angier said are the best for a successful dieter.

Eating below 1,200 calories a day is a big “no-no.”

“[When] your body is in starvation mode, your body will rebel and it will say eat more,” Angier said. “You start to metabolize your body’s own protein … that is a bad thing.”

Angier said that people need to shoot for those five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, increase fiber intake to 20 to 30 grams a day and to eat organically when possible.

“It is interesting that in most countries, it’s not having enough food and in this country, we eat way too much of the wrong food.”

Angier said people should avoid or limit animal fat, particularly saturated fat found in foods like butter and red meat.

And he said physical activity is vital.

“I tell everyone: you need to exercise,” Angier said. “Very few people successfully lose weight without exercise … it’s almost impossible not to.”

For dieters who cannot afford to hire a nutrition coach or join a motivational club but need support, Angier said there are helpful web sites that work, such as

“For people to track what they are doing and to see success can be very helpful,” he said.

Flagler Junior Sara Bliss belongs to the free site

“You achieve what you want by counting calories and analyzing how good foods are for you — the website grades everything,” Bliss said. “For example, a food gets an A if it’s low in calories, but a good balance of carbs, fats and proteins.”

Belonging to the site made Bliss more aware of what she puts into her body and made her realize how important portion sizes are.

“If you really want to lose weight, watch what you eat, how much you eat and work daily exercise into your routine,” Bliss said. “Fad diets have you losing five pounds a week but that’s not healthy.”

Instead of risking her hair on a fad diet, Arzapalo always makes sure to eat a good breakfast, tries not to skip meals and drinks “tons” of water throughout the day.

According to the AHA, fad diets damage the principle of good nutrition and people are better off with a diverse balanced diet.

“The body has an amazing capacity to deal with variety of foods,” Angier said. “A little common sense goes a long way.”

2011 Gargoyle Anthology Award Winner: Honorable Mention for News Writing

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