eating strawberryWe’re entering the last few days of March which is Nutrition Awareness month, so asked a guest author to talk a bit about some of the fad diets teens may be exposed to. As we’ve mentioned before, we support the idea of eating  a variety of foods balanced with regular physical activity. Diets can be dangerous for developing teens and a meal plan that uses diet pills, restricts calories, or is limited to consuming only a select food group is typically not recommended. This post is not an all encompassing list of popular diets, but our guest, Siobhan Thomas-Smith, a medical student at the University of Washington School of Medicine, highlights some of the popular fad diets in the media today.

Guest Author: Siobhan Thomas-Smith, University of Washington School of Medicine

The early teenage years are a great challenge on the human body.  Energy requirements escalate, growth velocity peaks, and many young people begin to grow both taller and larger at rates that may make them uncomfortable.   This rapid growth, on top of social pressures from middle school and high school to conform to a certain image, shape or size may push some teens to experiment with regaining control over their body through dieting.  While certain changes in what we eat can be positive – limiting saturated fats or eating more fruits and vegetables- the restrictive eating that defines most popular diets can be extremely low in both micro and macronutrients critical for a growing teen’s body.  In keeping with our nutrition theme for the month- let’s explore several of the “fad” diets to which teens may be exposed in the current media and a few things to look out for when you suspect your teen is dieting.

DIET #1 – Grapefruit Diet

This diet is based on consuming a grapefruit or grapefruit juice at every meal, while cutting out simple carbohydrates like bread, rice, starchy vegetables and desserts.  The majority of the calories at each meal are from protein and fat.  As is true of most fad diets, this diet has cut out one macronutrient completely (carbohydrates) while leaving proteins and fats available in moderation, and one food available without restriction (grapefruits).  Anyone who restricts the amount of calories put into his/her body for a prolonged period of time will see some amount of weight loss.  However, when a teenager restricts his or her intake of carbohydrates there can be serious effects on energy levels and difficulty with digestion due to lack of fiber.  Severe restriction of carbohydrates can actually deplete your body of glucose and lead to serious consequences. Our brains run on glucose, so this is dangerous. Low-carbohydrate diets can cause one to have trouble staying awake during the day, difficulty focusing, constipation or feelings of nausea.

DIET #2 – Non-Prescription Diet Pills

Over the counter diet pills are appealing to teens due to easy availability and unrealistic weight loss promises.  Such claims on bottles as “lose 30 lbs. without dieting” abound in the diet aisle of most drugstores.  These drugs are primarily aimed at appetite suppression and increased caloric burn, and while many may be effective they are not without serious health risks.  Phenphedrine, a common ingredient in these diet pills, contains the stimulant Phenylephrine.  This product causes weight loss by increasing blood pressure, and causing nausea and stomach irritation.  The potential side effects on the nervous system and the heart make it very dangerous. We don’t recommend diet pills for any teen.

DIET # 3 – Juice Cleanse Diet

Juice and smoothie diets have become increasingly popular among celebrities in the past few years.  The concept requires that you consume only fresh-squeezed juices and no chewed foods.  Again, the ultimate weight loss strategy is one of reduced caloric intake and macronutrient restriction- in this case one cuts out protein and fat.  While increasing fruit and vegetable intake is an excellent idea to improve micronutrient consumption, making fat and protein into dietary culprits can decrease the body’s ability to build muscle and store energy- and in severe cases lead to muscle breakdown, fatigue, and tissue damage.

If your child is motivated by improving the health of his or her eating habits and maintaining a healthy weight- the timeless tips remain true: eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains and whole proteins and drink a lot of water.  Limiting simple sugar intake by cutting out soda and limiting juice is a great first step towards a healthy lifestyle.  Avoid calling certain foods ‘good’ and others ‘bad’ as the key to healthy eating is variety and moderation.

For more information on  how fad diets can affect families check out the post from On The Pulse called “Vilifying foods.”

Lastly, a team effort towards healthy eating and exercise will keep the whole family motivated and feeling supported.  If you have any questions on teen dieting contact a medical provider or clinical nutritionist.