Fighting the battle of the bulge can range from following a sensible diet to making ill-guided efforts that can have serious health consequences.
“People get so focused on weight loss they are willing to do unproven and potentially dangerous things that can backfire and cause serious health problems,” says Michelle May, MD, who teaches mindful eating.
Here are seven dangerous strategies you should avoid when trying to lose weight.
Starvation, Fasting, or Very Low-Calorie Diets
Severely slashing calories may lead to weight loss, but the lost weight includes precious muscle and lowers metabolism. Drastic calorie restriction also causes a shift toward a higher percentage of body fat, which increases the risk for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
Unless medically supervised, don’t cut calories below 1,200 per day. Otherwise, you will struggle to get enough nutrients to fuel your activities and satisfy your hunger. Keep in mind that when you lose weight quickly, you may be at risk to pack it back on -- with more fat and less muscle -- especially if you're over 50.
Supplements That Make Grand Promises
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Unlike makers of prescription drugs, companies that make supplements don't have to prove that their products are safe or effective before putting them on the market. Even products that claim to be natural aren’t necessarily safe or good for you.
If you're thinking about taking any weight loss product, ask your doctor first. It's best to focus on what's proven to work for weight loss, including your diet.
Cleanses or Detox Plans
At best, cleanses cause weight loss from water and stool weight. But they can be dangerous. They carry risks of dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and more.
“Losing lots of fluid without medical supervision is risky, and when it's combined with fasting, even riskier," May says. "Your body is uniquely fine-tuned to detoxify and excrete toxins. So cleanses are unnecessary and can lead to serious complications by messing with your body’s system.”
Instead of detoxifying, be more mindful of what you eat. If you want to cleanse or detoxify your body, drink plenty of water and eat lots of high-fiber foods.
All Forms of Purging
Purging includes making yourself vomit, chewing food and spitting it out, and abusing laxatives. “These unhealthy and unsafe behaviors are not uncommon on college campuses, pose serious health problems, and are the first step in the development of eating disorders,” says Connie Diekman, RD. She's the director of nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, where she also counsels students who have eating disorders.
Acid in the stomach is extremely strong. Strong acid is necessary to prepare food for digestion and absorption. Stomach contents are meant to stay in the stomach, not be regurgitated into the throat and mouth. “Extremely acidic vomit can cause erosion in the esophagus and mouth and on tooth enamel. This can increase risk for certain cancers, tooth decay, and more when purging becomes a ritual,” Diekman says.
All of these forms of weight loss are dangerous, but the most dangerous is the use of syrup of ipecac, Diekman says. “One dose can trigger cardiac irregularity and can lead to cardiac arrest.”
Purging in all its forms is no way to whittle down the waistline. Eating and drinking healthfully is a much safer weight loss approach.
Extreme exercise may make for good reality television. But in the real world, it can cause grave problems. It causes severe wear and tear; increases the risk for injury, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance; and psychologically turns exercise into punishment for eating, May says.
The American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderately intense cardio exercise 5 days a week, or 20 minutes of vigorously intense cardio exercise 3 days a week, and strength-training exercises that work all the major muscle groups two to three times a week. Some people think more is better and go way beyond what’s healthy. That kind of obsessive exercise can begin to control their lives in an unhealthy way. Take a moderate approach to exercise, and you’ll be more likely to stick with it for the long haul.
Legal and Illegal Drugs
Using drugs other than prescription weight loss drugs intended for weight loss is a mistake with dangerous consequences.
“The potential risks associated with abusing drugs such as cocaine, speed, and meds prescribed for attention deficit disorder, thyroid disorders, or diabetes to lose weight far outweigh any health benefit you may get from weight loss," says nutrition counselor Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, PhD, RD. Risks include addiction, relationship and financial problems, anxiety, severe headaches, stroke, and heart, lung, and kidney problems.
Using illegal drugs for any purpose is strongly discouraged, and using legal drugs for their unintended purpose without medical supervision is dangerous.
Nicotine has been shown to be an appetite suppressant, but the risks of smoking vastly outweigh any benefits.
Beyond the numerous health risks, weight gain is often a side effect when smokers try to kick the addictive habit.
Bottom line: Don’t smoke for any reason, least of all to lose weight.
Best Weight Loss Practices
Choose a diet that works for your lifestyle. The best diet is the one you can stick with long-term. Use common sense, listen to your body, be mindful of what you eat, and pass on expensive, risky, and worthless weight loss schemes or products that are unproven.
Seek expert advice from your doctor or a registered dietitian if you are concerned that your weight loss methods may border on extreme or unhealthy.