10 possible pitfalls of popular fad diets, especially for active athletes

"Lose 10 pounds in 2 days!"

"Melt away fat 24 hours a day, seven days a week!"

What more could you ask for? How about seriously impaired athletic ability, kidney failure, and premature osteoporosis? These are much more realistic results from certain fad diets and products on the market today.

Trendy weight-loss marvels, such as Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, The Zone, and Metabolife 356, entice both aspiring and hardcore athletes with their alluring headlines and promises. It's surprising how many intelligent athletes fall prey to these false guarantees.

No matter what the sport, many athletes are torn between body image issues and the drive to succeed athletically. This internal conflict leads rational individuals to experiment with these self-defeating behaviors.

So if you find yourself hopelessly falling short of completing that 10K or struggling to do that extra set of reps, fad diets and products may be the culprits.

Tempted to try one of these diets? If optimal athletic performance is your goal, here are 10 reasons to avoid these fads at all costs:

1. Osteoporosis. High-protein diets, such as the Atkins diet, have been shown to increase calcium excretion. Over time, premature osteoporosis can develop and lead to a higher chance of broken bones while training.

2. Kidney failure. Consuming too much protein increases susceptibility to kidney disease. Both the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society recommend a diet including only 10% to 15% of calories derived from protein. The Zone recommends 30%!

3. Ketosis. Ketosis is a dangerous metabolic state in which your body burns fat and protein instead of glucose. Proponents of low-carbohydrate diets actually promote ketosis as a wonderful benefit of the plan. This condition can eventually cause organs to fail and lead to side effects such as fatigue, dizziness, irritability, and headaches -- all of which minimize performance.

4. Insomnia. Both fad diets and associated products can interrupt normal sleep patterns. Inadequate rest can bring about accidents during a workout due to exhaustion or weakness. Insomnia sufferers may have impaired concentration and decreased ability to accomplish daily tasks, let alone strenuous workouts.

5. Loss of muscle mass. The Hollywood 48 Hour Miracle Diet pledges that "in just 48 hours you will cleanse your body and lose up to 10 pounds." Similar liquid and semi-starvation plans promising "rapid" or "effortless" weight loss lead to insufficient caloric intake. The outcome is loss of water, muscle, and organ tissue with little to no fat loss. So not only will you struggle to build new muscle, but you will actually lose strength and lower your metabolism.

6. Dehydration. High protein intake causes excess urination resulting in dehydration. Dehydration impairs temperature regulation so your body is unable to cool itself efficiently, thus decreasing stamina and increasing recovery time. Severe dehydration jeopardizes mental concentration, muscular strength, physical work capacity, and increases the threat of heat exhaustion.

7. Increased risk of injury. Nutrient and caloric deficiencies can decrease alertness and stamina, enhancing your risk of injury. A less obvious cause of injury is the caffeine, ephedrine, or other stimulants that many diet aids contain. These elements create a false perception of increased energy, causing you to push yourself harder than you should, potentially harming joints or muscles. Since 1994, the FDA has received more than 800 reports of serious adverse effects associated with use of products containing ephedrine, such as Metabolife 356.

8. Nutritional imbalances. Diets like Sugar Busters! suggest avoiding certain foods, including potatoes, rice, and carrots, all of which are packed with nutrition. An imbalanced diet that lacks key nutrients will prevent you from performing at your peak.

9. Reduced endurance. With most quick weight loss plans, glycogen and water are the first materials to be depleted. This deficit can be disastrous to performance and health, as you will lose energy to power muscles, leading to fatigue and lethargy.

10. Compromised immunity. Nutritional deficiencies can make you drastically more vulnerable to both minor and major illnesses. These sick days equate to loss of conditioning, missed trainings and skipped events. Many supplements claiming to be "herbal" or "natural," such as Herbalife, may also interfere with certain medications. Just because something is all-natural does not mean it is safe. After all, cyanide occurs naturally.

Fad diets have quickly taken over the booming weight loss industry with their persuasive claims. The initial weight loss you experience with these plans is usually only temporary, and the consequences will catch up to you.

"The safest and most effective way to lose weight is to reduce calories and increase physical activity," says Suzianne Ellington Garner, public health advisor in the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The fact is the majority of people who are attempting weight loss are not using the correct method to achieve or maintain positive results."

You work hard to reach your athletic goals. Why invest your hopes and money in feeble empty promises? Rather, stay competitive and make your health, not your appearance, one of life's top priorities. Know that when you hear about a new miracle diet that sounds too good to be true -- it probably is.

Valerie Applebaum is a certified health educator with a Masters degree in Public Health. Through speaking, writing, and web communications, she has focused her career on educating others on healthy behaviors that will enhance both physical and emotional well-being.

The author included the following addendum to this story, in light of recent research on the subject of high-protein diets.

'High-protein diets -- What's the big deal?'

Of all the trendy fad diets available today, the high-protein/low-carb programs are by far the most popular, not to mention the most controversial. From magazines to newspapers to television, these diets are the subject of heated debates.

Interestingly, new studies have been conducted indicating that these diets may not be as dangerous as once thought. The July 2002 issue of the American Journal of Medicine highlights a study recently carried out by Duke University Medical Center which reveals compelling findings.

Preliminary research results indicate that a low-carbohydrate diet can lead to significant and sustained weight loss. Even more surprising, the analysis shows that patients' cholesterol levels improved by the end of six months.

A similar study performed at the University of Cincinnati concludes that individuals who follow a high-protein diet for six months may lose more weight than those on a standard low-fat diet, and they appear to experience no cardiovascular problems as a result.

Keep in mind that both of these studies emphasize that the long-term effects of these diets still remain unknown.

When all is said and done, the choice is yours. If you're thinking about trying a high-protein diet, do some research and make an informed decision about which plan is best for you.

If you decide that high-protein is the way to go, follow these tips to protect your health:

1. Check with your doctor before starting any new diet

2. Try it for the short term only -- six months or less

3. Drink ample water to avoid dehydration

4. Monitor your blood pressure regularly

5. Take a daily multivitamin

6. Do not diet when pregnant or breastfeeding

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