The Cost of Crash Diets

You have a week to fit into that dress, and five pounds (O.K., 10) to drop. The plan? If you were a Hollywood star, you might eat nothing but baby food or grapefruit until then, or forgo meals in favor of liquids. If you were Kim Kardashian, you’d probably prefer a QuickTrim detox formula. Or if you were Michelle Obama, you would opt for a two-day vegetables-only “cleanse,” as she calls the regimen in an interview in the September issue of Ladies’ Home Journal.

“People could eat nothing but jelly beans and if they were eating just a small amount, they would lose weight,” says Donald Hensrud, chairman of preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic and medical editor-in-chief of The Mayo Clinic Diet, a guide to healthy weight loss. “You might be able to get away with it for a period of time, but the more restrictive [the diet] is—and the longer you follow it—the greater the risks.”

Crash diets are a tempting way to lose weight fast, says Hensrud. But most experts agree that they’re not worth the risk. Just one week of overly restrictive dieting can cause serious nutritional deficiencies, alter your metabolism, and undercut your emotional well-being. And most crash diets only set you up to regain the weight, since you haven’t made any long-term lifestyle changes.

“When people go on really rigid, low-calorie diets, they gain the weight back,” says Katherine Tallmadge, a registered dietitian and author of Diet Simple: 192 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits and Inspirations. “Their plan backfires. You might lose weight through severe dieting, but you don’t develop the habits you need to keep it off, like getting the right amount of exercise.”

Short-term dieting becomes especially unhealthy below 1,000 calories a day, warns Hensrud. While dipping below that level is dangerous for anyone, the threshold for a particular person could be significantly higher, depending on age, height, weight, activity level, and body composition. The majority of women in their 30s and 40s, for example, need roughly 1,800 calories a day to stay healthy; for men in that age range, it’s about 2,200. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) defines healthy weight loss as one to two pounds per week; for each pound you want to lose, you should consume 500 fewer calories a day—or burn them off through exercise. It’s no trick to shed far more than a couple of pounds each week, but you could run up some serious nutritional deficiencies: It’s hard to get enough calcium, vitamin D, or iron on a radically reduced number of calories. You could permanently damage your organs by not providing them with sufficient working fuel. And—to be blunt—crash dieting could kill you if you lose too much fluid and your electrolytes go out of whack, says Hensrud, who has treated several short-term dieters who were hospitalized for dehydration. One of them had alarmingly low levels of potassium, sodium, and other vital electrolytes, which could cause muscle cramps, dizziness, fainting, or even a heart attack.

Even if a crash diet puts smaller numbers on the scale, the weight loss may be illusory or harmful. The first few pounds to go are usually water, and they inevitably return, says Cheryl Forberg, staff nutritionist for NBC’s The Biggest Loser. You can lose muscle mass—on near-starvation diets, the body starts to feed on protein for sustenance. And don’t be surprised if you’re more snappish: Irritability, depression, and inability to handle everyday stress are travel companions of low-cal diets.

There is a healthy way to shed a few pounds fast, merely by bumping up physical activity and making minor diet adjustments. Try eliminating processed foods, which can cause bloating if they’re loaded with sodium, and minimize overall salt intake to prevent water gain. Pig out on fruits and vegetables—especially asparagus, a natural diuretic that will help flush your body of toxins while breaking down fat, says ADA spokesman Jim White, a dietitian in Virginia Beach, Va. You should see a difference within a week. Avoid one-food plans, like cabbage soup, baby food, or vegetable-only diets, say experts. White worked with a client who spent six months on a nothing-but-watermelon diet, which he calls a sure route to malnutrition.

Bottom line: Crash diets are a quick but deceptive fix. “They patch things up instead of addressing the larger issues: cutting down portions, eating five or six meals a day to speed up your metabolism, and getting a variety of foods,” White says. “If you need to look good for a wedding or class reunion, do yourself a favor and plan ahead.”

Article courtesy of Angela Haupt for U.S. News.


Healthy Breakfast Muffins

Banana Breakfast Muffins
Adapted from Joy of Baking

1 cup whole wheat flour

½ cup ground flax seeds

½ cup all purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 large ripe bananas, mashed well

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup pure maple syrup

1/3 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt

3 tablespoons canola oil

½ cup chopped walnuts

 Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 12-cup muffin tins.

In a large bowl, combine the flours, flax seed, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.

In another large bowl combine the bananas, eggs, syrup, yogurt, and oil. Lightly fold the wet ingredients into the dry just until combined. Fold in walnuts.

Spoon batter into muffins tins. Bake 18-20 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool on wire racks for 5 minutes and remove from pans. Enjoy!

Makes about 16 muffins.

Recipe courtesy of My Recipes

Is Black Rice the New Superfood?

According to ancient Chinese legend, black rice was so rare, tasty, and nutritious that only the emperors were allowed to eat it.

Times have changed. Although black rice is still relatively rare, researchers are trying to bring its distinctive flavor and mix of antioxidants to the masses—or at least to a grocery store near you.

If you’ve never heard of black rice, much less seen it, the dark-hued grain is now available at supermarkets such as Whole Foods and appears to be gaining a foothold in kitchens and restaurants in the U.S.

Like brown rice, black rice is full of antioxidant-rich bran, which is found in the outer layer that gets removed during the milling process to make white rice. But only black-rice bran contains the antioxidants known as anthocyanins, purple and reddish pigments—also found in blueberries, grapes, and acai—that have been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease and cancer, improvements in memory, and other health benefits.

One spoonful of black-rice bran—or 10 spoonfuls of cooked black rice—contains the same amount of anthocyanin as a spoonful of fresh blueberries, according to a new study presented today at the American Chemical Society, in Boston.

“I think the black-rice bran has an advantage over blueberries, because blueberries still contain a high level of sugar,” says the lead researcher, Zhimin Xu, PhD, an associate professor at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, in Baton Rouge.

Black rice isn’t currently grown on a commercial scale in the U.S., but Xu hopes that his research will spur farmers in the Southeast to start growing it.

The combination of antioxidants found in black rice packs a one-two punch that could make it a particularly good food for your health.

Some antioxidants in black (and brown) rice are fat-soluble, while anthocyanins are water-soluble and can therefore reach different areas of the body, says Joe Vinson, PhD, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania.

Courtesy of Carina Storrs for, photo courtesy of Delicious Coma

Stop Overeating by Drinking Water

Forget diet pills and cleanses. A new study suggests that an effective weight-loss aid is available straight from your kitchen sink.

Drinking two 8-ounce glasses of water before breakfast, lunch, and dinner while also cutting back on portions may help you lose weight and keep it off for at least a year, according to research presented today at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, in Boston.

“As part of a prudent, low-calorie weight-loss diet, adding water may help with weight-loss success,” says Brenda Davy, PhD, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of nutrition at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg.

Dietitians have long recommended drinking water as a way to shed pounds, but little research has been done to confirm this conventional wisdom, the researchers say. Though small, Davy’s study is the first randomized controlled trial to examine the benefits of “preloading” with water before meals.

The study included 48 overweight or obese men and women between the ages of 55 and 75 who were on a low-calorie diet (1,200 calories per day for women and 1,500 calories per day for men). Half of the people were instructed to drink 16 ounces of water—the amount in a small bottle of spring water—before meals.

After three months, the participants who drank water had lost an average of about 15.5 pounds, compared to just 11 pounds in the control group, according to the study, the first results of which were published earlier this year in the journal Obesity.

And the weight loss appears to be lasting, new data suggests. After a full year of the same regimen, the water drinkers had slimmed down by an additional 1.5 pounds, on average, while those who didn’t load up on water before meals gained about 2 pounds, Davy says. (Unlike the data published in Obesity, the findings presented today have not been thoroughly vetted by other experts in the field, as is required by most medical journals.)

Davy and her colleagues aren’t sure why drinking water before meals encourages weight loss, but the main reason appears to be that it helps fill your stomach, making you less hungry and less likely to overeat.

In addition, drinking more water may discourage you from guzzling soda and other calorie-laden beverages. (The study included only plain water, not mineral, flavored, or vitamin waters.) Even the routine of drinking water before meals may have a beneficial effect because it’s a reminder that you’re trying to lose weight, the researchers suggest.

Drinking more water is a low-risk way to lose excess weight, especially if it takes the place of other liquid calories, says Stephen Cook, MD, an obesity expert at the University of Rochester Medical Center, in N.Y.

“This is an easy way to replace those calories, and if everything is equal, it will slow down your weight gain or reverse it,” says Dr. Cook, who was not involved in the new research. “It is one of the safest things we can recommend to help people lose weight.”

Davy says that people who are trying to lose weight should bring a refillable water bottle to work and drink from it throughout the day. “And try to have two cups of water 20 minutes before each main meal,” she says.

While each person’s hydration needs are different, the Institute of Medicine advises that men and women try to consume about 3.7 and 2.7 liters of water a day, respectively, including water found in food and other beverages.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit professional organization for scientists that was chartered by Congress in 1937.

Courtesy of

Tips for the Solo Adventurer

Long before “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert began contemplating the solo journey that would change her life and create a literary blockbuster, June Meineke was dreaming of taking a trip around the world.

So when Meineke took an early retirement from her job, she came up with a plan, but no set itinerary. The only thing she knew is that she would fly to Paris, France, in September and return to the United States from Auckland, New Zealand, six months later. She would choose the rest of her route along the way. She would also travel alone.

“It was the trip of a lifetime. I would highly recommend it to anyone and I’d love to do it again,” Meineke said of the trip that began last fall and ended in March.

The journey took her from France, through Germany, Poland, Bosnia and Croatia to Turkey. From there, it was on to India, Dubai, and finally New Zealand. Along the way, Meineke made a startling discovery.

Advice to Solo Travelers

• Test traveling on your own. Before you take a big trip solo, drive 20 miles outside your home zone and go have lunch or see a movie.

• Your first trip solo might be going cross-country to see a friend, then exploring that friend’s city by yourself. You can branch out from there.

• If you don’t want to eat alone, go to the bar area of a restaurant. There are always other single people there who want to chat or you can talk with the bartender.

• In places where you’ll stand out, buy some local clothing when you get there so you can blend in a bit better.

• It’s important to have confidence. Consider a self-defense course that will help you hold yourself in a certain way.

Source: Beth Whitman, author of “Wanderlust and Lipstick”

“You would not believe the number of women traveling alone. There were more women traveling on their own than men,” said Meineke, who is in her 50s and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Opening Up to the World

“Eat, Pray, Love” — both the book and the new movie starring Julia Roberts — is fueling lots of interest in the experiences of solo travelers, especially female ones. There’s just something romantic, exhilarating and liberating about the idea of setting off on your own and exploring the world and yourself along the way.

No companion? No problem.

Gilbert said her book would likely be missing many of its most memorable characters had she not embarked on the journey by herself. Being alone simply forces a traveler to open up more, whether out of loneliness, curiosity or boredom, she added.

“You cannot have the experiences traveling with a partner that you have traveling alone. You just won’t,” Gilbert told earlier this year.

“There are different kinds of travel for different purposes. I do think there’s a certain time in life when it’s a really wise thing, just as a human being, to kind of go out and put yourself in the world and see what comes,” Gilbert said.

People who travel alone make up a quarter of all U.S. leisure travelers, according to D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a tourism research company. It found that slightly less than half of U.S. solo travelers are women.

Adventure Awaits

They travel alone for different reasons. Some are single, divorced or widowed (Meineke’s husband passed away 18 years ago) and don’t let the lack of a partner or like-minded friend stop them from going on an adventure. Others are married, but enjoy doing their own thing and conquering the world by themselves.

“There’s an element of feeling self-sufficient when you’re on your own and things happen — you never have a perfect trip — and when something goes sideways there’s an empowerment to feeling like, ‘Wow, I just got myself through that,'” said Beth Whitman, author of “Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo.” She also runs a women’s travel website.

Beth Whitman travels at least once a year internationally on her own and loves visiting India. Whitman, who is married and lives in Seattle, Washington, talked with just hours before she began a solo trip to Papua New Guinea. She started traveling on her own in college, creating itineraries that would impress any adventurer. Whitman once spent a year backpacking Pacific Rim countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. She also took a nine-week, 7,000-mile motorcycle trip from Seattle to Panama.  Loneliness can be a factor during such trips, but it usually doesn’t last long, Whitman said.

“What I find is that just at the point where you start to feel lonely and sorry for yourself, somebody comes along — you meet great friends along the way, whether it’s on a train ride or a bus ride or you land at an airport and you just buddy up with people to share a taxi,” Whitman said.

Outside the Comfort Zone

Still, the idea of being on your own away from home can be off-putting for many travelers. When asked whether they had ever taken a vacation alone, 43 percent of respondents in an informal poll said, “Yes, I enjoyed it,” and almost a quarter answered, “No, but I’d like to.” But 30 percent said, “No, I wouldn’t enjoy it,” and 4 percent responded that they had taken a vacation alone but wouldn’t do it again. More than 35,000 people answered the online survey question last month.

Amber Rasberry has traveled to Spain and the Caribbean by herself.  She set out for Spain by herself exactly because she wanted to get out of her comfort zone. The 32-year-old Los Angeles, California, resident decided to go for it after she was laid off from her job in 2005.

“I just bought the plane ticket first. That’s how I knew, OK, there’s no turning back,” Rasberry said. “And then I figured everything else out after that.”

She lived in Spain for 3½ months, enrolling in language school and taking side trips to Portugal and other destinations. Rasberry indulged her solo travel bug again in 2008 when she took a summer vacation by herself in Curacao; she was just looking at countries on a map and booked her stay as soon as her eyes fell on the Caribbean island. She loved her time there, she said, not bothered by the idea of going to a resort where many of the guests might be coupled up. She’s also become comfortable with a situation many solo travelers may dread: Eating alone in a restaurant.

“That’s always the most self-conscious time because you’re walking in by yourself and you’re like ‘Oh, table for one’ and then they clear the other side of the table. But I always bring reading material and always have a glass of wine and just take my time,” Rasberry said.

“I love traveling and so I’m going to do that to the best of my ability and if there’s somebody who wants to come, great. But if not … I’m still going to do it.”

Courtesy of AARP

Tai Chi and Fibromyalgia

Doctors often recommend exercise for patients with fibromyalgia, but the chronic pain and fatigue associated with the condition can make activities like running and swimming difficult. Tai chi—a slow, meditative martial art—may be an effective alternative, a new study suggests.

Fibromyalgia patients who took tai chi classes twice a week for three months experienced less pain, stiffness, and fatigue than a control group that attended lifestyle education and stretching sessions, according to the study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Tai chi involves a series of slow, fluid movements that focus on balance and deep breathing. Although it’s not clear from the study how exactly tai chi might improve fibromyalgia symptoms, both the physical activity and the meditative aspects are likely beneficial, says Chenchen Wang, MD, the lead researcher and an associate professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, in Boston.

“Some people need the physical improvement; some people need more mental improvement,” she says. “Tai chi can help with both.”

Previous research has shown that tai chi can help relieve the symptoms of arthritis and other pain conditions, but this study is the first controlled trial to examine its effectiveness as a treatment for fibromyalgia, which affects an estimated 10 million Americans.

The study included 66 fibromyalgia patients who were randomly assigned to take one-hour tai chi classes with an experienced teacher or one-hour classes that taught coping skills, pain-management techniques, and stretching. Participants were also asked to practice tai chi or stretch on their own for 20 minutes each day, depending on which group they were in.

After three months, Dr. Wang and her colleagues asked the patients to rate their pain symptoms, physical functioning, fatigue, and mood, all of which were combined on a single scale ranging from 0 to 100, with higher scores indicating more severe symptoms. (The patients completed the same survey before the study began.)

The average score among the tai chi patients dropped from 63 to 35, while the average for the control group dropped by just nine points, from 68 to 59. Three months after the sessions stopped, the scores had remained roughly the same, which suggests that the benefits of the tai chi were lasting, Dr. Wang says.

The results were encouraging, as existing fibromyalgia treatments—including medication, sleep therapy, and aerobic exercise—fail to help many patients. “We need another approach,” says Dr. Wang.

Robert Shmerling, MD, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the chief of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, says that he often recommends alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and massage, to his fibromyalgia patients, although some of them are skeptical.

“I would certainly put tai chi on the list,” says Dr. Shmerling, who co-wrote an editorial that accompanies the study. “It’s difficult to take something that’s as safe as tai chi and show that it has this dramatic benefit and not be enthusiastic about it.”

The calming style of tai chi used in the study, known as Yang, may be especially effective for fibromyalgia patients, says Kim D. Jones, PhD, an associate professor at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Nursing, in Portland.

“It works more on the parasympathetic nervous system, …the part of the nervous system that helps us feel calm and relaxed,” says Jones, who studies Yang-style tai chi and yoga in fibromyalgia but wasn’t involved in the study.

Jones recommends that fibromyalgia patients find a well-trained instructor rather than trying tai chi on their own. She points out that learning tai chi in a group may have its own therapeutic benefits, by boosting confidence, for instance.

Many community centers offer affordable tai chi classes, but experienced teachers can be expensive and hard to come by. However, if future studies support the benefits of tai chi, insurance companies might start to cover the practice, Dr. Shmerling says.

Courtesy of Carina Storrs for

Pasta with Nettles and Sausage

1 lb fresh nettles
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
4 thin slices (about 1/4 lb) pancetta,
cut into strips
2 mild Italian sausages without fennel
(about 1/2 lb), casing removed
28 oz can whole peeled tomatoes
2–4 cups chicken broth
1 lb bite-sized pasta, such as penne
Salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Wearing kitchen gloves or pulling from the bag with tongs, dump the nettles into the water without touching them. Cook, stirring with tongs, for a few minutes, until totally wilted—at which point they will be safe to touch. Drain, cool, and squeeze the water out of them. Coarsely chop and set aside.

Heat a large high-sided saucepan (or heavy soup pot) over low heat. Add olive oil, then onion and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, until tender and transparent. Increase heat to medium, add pancetta, and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the pancetta begins to crisp. Crumble the sausage into the pan in bite-sized pieces and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up the sausage with a spoon, for 10 minutes, or until cooked through.

Drain the tomato juices into the pan. Pour canned tomatoes into a medium-size bowl and, using your hands, crush them into small pieces. Add tomatoes to the pan along with the reserved nettles and 2 cups of the chicken broth. Cook until the tomatoes break down and the nettles are tender, about 30 to 40 minutes, adding broth as necessary to maintain a thin, juicy consistency.

When the sauce is almost done, cook pasta according to package instructions. Season the sauce with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste, and serve piping hot over the pasta.

Courtesy of Sabrina Tinsley of La Spiga and Seattle Met