Extreme eating habits

We examine the many fitness fads and ploys resorted to by desperate dieters.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Business Collection / Rex Features (199626a)
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The resolution to improve oneself by losing weight or embarking on a new fitness drive has become as customary to the post-festive season as taking down the decorations. Come January, the bookshelves are bulging with novel diet plans, while celebrities adorn the pages of lifestyle magazines promoting their latest "get into great shape" meal and exercise combination regimes.

Signing up to the latest fitness fad isn't unique to today's image-conscious society either. "Weight loss 'gurus' have been devising diets and people have been following them for more than two millennia," says Louise Foxcroft, a medical historian and the author of Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2,000 Years.

One of the first regimes designed to help people achieve an "ideal body" free from "undue thinness and fatness" was an 11th-century plan created by Avicenna, a Persian physician and philosopher. "His plan was pretty sound compared with many," says Foxcroft. "He advised using exercise, purgatives and laxatives - something that's still preached and practised today."

For every well-grounded weight-loss solution, there have been many mad-cap methods too. "People have used arsenic, soap, lard and all manner of substances as part of purported miracle diets," says Foxcroft. "One infamous pill, taken by thousands of American dieters until it was outlawed in 1938, even contained explosives."

More than a century later and it seems we're no more enlightened, as the UK-based charity, Sense About Science, a discreditor of novelty health fixes, recently revealed. Its annual round-up of flaky celeb-backed dietary advice included "chewing charcoal" which, according to the Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding "absorbs all the bad, damaging stuff in the body when sprinkled over your food".

No it doesn't, argued scientists. "It's unnecessary," says the Cambridge University chemical scientist Dr John Emsley. "The body is already quite capable of removing any 'bad, damaging stuff' it encounters in ordinary consumption."

"The new year always brings renewed vigour to improve our health and get the body we want and this is no different in Dubai," explains Laura Holland, a wellbeing and nutrition consultant with the Abu Dhabi and Dubai-based www.BeUtifulYou.co.uk. "Unfortunately, this does lead many into 'fad diet' territory, especially when a supposed quick fix to get beach ready is so appealing."

"I've heard some absolute shockers from my clients' previous attempts to lose weight," says Holland. "One survived a week on cucumbers and celery, I've no idea how she did that, another ate apples for a day followed by a day of grapes followed by a day of yet another fruit. The most dangerous that I've encountered is starvation - you'd be surprised just how many still try to get through a day on little to no food to lose weight. Not only is this dangerous, it just doesn't work in the long run."

Several extreme detox regimes were also junked by Sense About Science dietitians who insist the more severe forms of detoxification simply starve the body of much-needed nutrients instead of cleansing it.

Eating tapeworms to control weight gain, which has reportedly been practised in parts of Asia for several centuries, has made a rather disturbing comeback, too. US TV's The Tyra Banks Show revealed how western dieters were swallowing the parasite in the hope that it would take up residence in their digestive system. Another US fad, "the cotton ball diet", follows a similar format - whereby people worried about their weight put something totally unsuitable into their digestive tract in the hope that it'll reduce calorie intake.

For others, the desire to convert to healthier habits leads them to try hypnosis for weight loss, or else to employ "mind tricks" that can influence appetite. "Overweight people have certain habits in common - and surprising as it seems, it's not overeating," says Ben Fletcher, a professor of psychology and the author of The No-Diet Diet (Orion). "Changing everyday routines can break bad eating habits, too."

"Good" habits with proven beneficial weight-loss effects include always sitting down to eat, fasting for an hour or two before bedtime and even chewing food more thoroughly. But that's not a recommendation to follow the "Chewing Diet".

Expounded by Horace Fletcher, in 1903, the Chewing Diet, or "Fletcherism" as it was also known, would be considered an eating disorder these days - but in the early 20th century it was widely practised. "Fletcherism was based on the premise that people chew morsels of food until they're virtually dissolved," reveals Foxcroft. Each food had a preset tally of mastication. "A courgette for example, had to be chewed 800 times, and any food that hadn't liquefied was to be spat out. People would have certainly eaten less - often because their meals had become cold and unpalatable by the time they'd finished chewing."

Other ploys resorted to by desperate dieters have included the wearing of glasses with a blue lens tint - because viewing food in a blue light is said to make it less appealing. More than 100,000 people have found that putting their money where their mouth is provides the best motivation to get into shape. The US-based website StickK.com claims to have had that many members sign up and commit to a contract to hit fitness goals by a specific date. If they fail to do so, then their "wager" is donated to a charity of their choice.

Sleeping to encourage slimming has, in recent years, been backed up with some science from the Kaiser Permanente Centre for Health Research in the US, among other resources. The theory goes that stress is the cause of overeating, but by getting eight hours' shut-eye a night, "sleep dieters" will manage their anxiety and thus their weight more successfully.

The most popular fitness fads at least focus upon eating bona fide food products - though often in a manner that excludes food groups with some unpleasant side effects. The Atkins Diet and similar high-protein, low-carbohydrate plans have had millions of followers, though many have experienced fatigue and bad breath as a result of the "ketosis" process the body undergoes.

Similarly the "Paleo" diet - in which you eat as cavemen did - has raised concerns among health professionals about low calcium intake. More recently, the Dukan Diet, which includes celebrity followers such as Jennifer Lopez and Gisele Bundchen, tells followers to drink at least 1.5 litres of water per day and eat only from a list of 100 specified foods.

"Fad diets do the biggest business and arguably the greatest harm," warns Foxcroft. "While dieters can lose up to 10 per cent of their body weight, the weight almost always returns."

With such concerns in mind, the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (HAAD) recently recommended the removal of a number of "weight-loss products" from shop shelves, following an inspection to evaluate the safety of supplements on sale in the emirate. "We want to encourage people to learn more about the danger associated with using such products for weight reduction," explained Dr Yasser Sharif from the Medication and Medical Products Safety section at HAAD.