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Balanced diet vs Crash diet for heart health

As a dietitian, I am disturbed by the fast pace at which crash diets are gaining popularity! And I strongly believe that people need to be aware of the potential health hazards of these currently trending diets. Nutrition is a basic prerequisite to sustain life. A balanced and nutritious diet is one which provides all the nutrients in required amounts and proper proportions. It can easily be achieved through a blend of four basic food groups namely:

  1. Cereals millets and pulses
  2. Vegetables and fruits
  3. Milk and milk products, eggs, meat and fish
  4. Nuts and oil seeds

The quantity of nutrient requirement varies with age, gender, physiological status and physical activity. A balanced diet should offer around 60-70% of total calories from carbohydrates, 10 – 12 % from proteins and 20 – 25% from healthy fat and should also other provide sufficient dietary fiber, antioxidants (Vitamin A, C, E, Beta – carotene, selenium etc.) which protect the human body from free radical damage.

Crash diets are modified diets undertaken on an urgent short-term basis with an aim of achieving rapid weights loss, improving blood sugar control etc. There are multiple crash diets that have sprung up recently and the most popular ones are low carbohydrate diets (Atkins, Zone diet), high fat diets (Ketogenic diet), low glycemic index diet, high protein diet (Paleo diet) and liquid diet. A crash diet is similar to a crash course wherein one cuts off either the fat and/or the carbohydrate intake and thus the calorie amount is drastically decreased (600 – 800 kcals/day instead of 1500-2000 kcals/day).

Crash diets often appear to be working in the immediate term. The diet sends signals to our body to get into starvation mode, where we will experience rapid onset of weight loss, which is mostly due to decrease in muscle mass and not the fat mass.

It is important to note that crash diets carry both short term and long term health risks. The most common short term risk is nutritional deficiency. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy and restricting them completely can cause hypoglycaemia. Food devoid of carbohydrates is going to be low in fibre as well, leading to constipation and infection in the digestive tract.

Long-term risks of crash diets include damage to the brain, kidney, heart and other vital organs. Some established complications are:

  1. Eating disorder
  2. Metabolic disorder
  3. Anxiety
  4. Depression
  5. Muscle loss
  6. Compromised immunity
  7. Impaired brain function
  8. Weak bones
  9. Poor attention span
  10. Hair loss
  11. Skin problems
  12. Dehydration
  13. Cardiac failure
  14. Renal failure

False claims made by crash diet proponents:

Rapid weight loss – In reality, you won’t lose fat but rather lose muscle, bone and water

Restricting or over – Consuming of foods groups–It is better to avoid diets that severely restrict food groups or allow you to eat unlimited quantities of certain foods

Combining foods – There is no evidence that combining certain foods enhances weight loss; eg; Cinnamon powder drink and other preparations

Exercise not necessary –The truth is without adequate exercise the weight you lose will come right back

Crash diet leads to heart diseases:

Crash diet is harmful for our heart health too. In my experience at Cardiac Wellness Institute, I have cared for individuals who were diagnosed with severe coronary blocks after following high-fat diets for a few months and for others who have had several attempts at crash diets for weight loss and had multiple nutritional deficiencies.

Research has shown that individuals on a very low calorie diet suffered heart failure. Low calorie diet can causes abnormal heart rhythms that can be fatal when body levels of magnesium or potassium dropped in susceptible individuals. Excessive dieting can cause cardiac stress, potentially leading to heart attack. Every individual should consume a nutrient dense diet that includes vitamins, minerals, proteins and whole grains in order to control weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.

I would like to conclude that crash diets are not scientifically backed and are almost always harmful in the long run. Medical research clearly indicates that eating the right kind of food in a balanced fashion helps to prevent many health problems like heart disease and cancers, the two leading causes of death worldwide.

Losing weight is best achieved by following a calorie deficit balanced diet, where calories are lost by burning more calories than is consumed. Choosing whole foods and fibre-rich foods and exercising adequately with a positive mental attitude will help to improve fitness and achieve ideal body weight. Again, losing weight should not be the goal; instead, weight loss should be the side effect of following a healthy lifestyle.

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Sitting for long hours is best avoided

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People with heart disease who sit for a long time have worse health even if they exercise regularly. Limiting the amount of time we spend on sitting may be as important as the amount we exercise. Sitting, watching television, working at a computer and driving are all sedentary behaviours and we need to take breaks from them.

While regular exercise is key to preventing heart disease, obesity and diabetes, limiting the time we spend not moving during the day has emerged as another important aspect of good health. Long hours of sitting need to be broken up with periodic standing or walking around.

Sitting for long periods of time and not using your muscles will have adverse effects on our body. While a person is sedentary (usually sitting and not active) there is a reduced uptake of glucose and fats, which then affects cholesterol and sugar levels. Breaking up your sedentary time will be beneficial in reducing the risk factors of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. We have to mobilize our muscles to burn oxygen and tap the fuel sources in our bodies. When sitting, there is no weight bearing or stress on the muscles—they aren’t stimulated and energy doesn’t get burned off.

Negative effects of being sedentary may be overcome by regular cardiovascular exercise and also by pushing your exercise limits. Recent research has shown that every extra hour of television viewing per day is associated with increased waist circumference, greater body mass index, and higher systolic blood pressure and triglycerides.

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Keys to Get Moving

  • Get up and move every 30 minutes
  • Stand up during TV commercials or, even better, do light exercises while watching TV
  • Drink lots of water (if your health condition permits) so it forces you to get up to go to the washroom
  • Take lunch breaks outside instead of in front of your work computer, and avoid gadgets while eating
  • Go to bed instead of sitting in front of the TV and get your daily quota of sleep

Monitor your activity patterns to find out when you are most sedentary and replace that with active hobbies