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Diabetics: Steer Clear of Fad Diets

By Adam Marcus, HealthScout Reporter

FRIDAY, Jan. 19 (HealthScout) —  Diabetics who take up fad diets to lose weight may be doing themselves more harm than good, nutrition experts say.

Meal plans high in protein and low in carbohydrates, such as the omnipresent Atkins diet, boast of serious weight loss, at least in the short run. But dietitians, and even the government, have warned that these heavily biased regimens fail to keep the pounds off over time.

Meat-rich diets tend to be higher in animal fats, which can increase cholesterol levels and exacerbate the risk of cardiovascular disease in patients with Type II diabetes, who already face a heightened risk of heart and vessel problems, experts say. And the lack of fruits and vegetables can lead to deficits in antioxidants and other "micronutrients" that fight cancer.

"In the long term, we don't know how [fad diets] are going to affect a person's health," says Karmeen Kulkarni, a diabetes clinician at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City. "When you cut out a whole set of foods, you always are concerned about it."

Kulkarni reviewed the impact of fad diets on the blood sugar disease at a symposium yesterday in New York City hosted by the American Medical Association.

Some 58 million American adults are overweight, and the number of people who are obese is up nearly 50 percent from the early 1990s, Kulkarni says. Half of all Americans are on some kind of diet.

Diets such as the Atkins plan can lead to dramatic weight loss, at least for a week or so, as the body sheds water that the now-missing carbohydrates used to store.

But the majority of people who go on these rigid programs drop them almost immediately, either because they crave fruit, vegetables, bread and other sources of fiber, or because they don't like the side effects, which can include bad breath.

Diabetics might notice near-term improvements in their blood sugar levels when they start low-carb diets, Kulkarni says. But she says those gains will fade when normal eating habits resume.

Foods low in fat often are doped with sugar and aren't necessarily low-cal, Kulkarni says. They can also strain the body's metabolism, she says, and promote not only weight gain but insulin resistance -- serious pitfall for established diabetics.

Anne Daly, president-elect of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association, agrees.

"Putting [diabetics] on these diets is ludicrous for their health," she says.

People with Type II diabetes have the same risk of heart attack as someone who's had one already, Daly says, so loading up on saturated fat and cholesterol makes no sense. Diabetics also face increased risk of kidney problems, and excess protein can exacerbate renal trouble.

What's more, fad diets that cut out fruits and vegetables can lead to deficiencies in potassium, folic acid and magnesium that are vital to keeping blood pressure and other functions in check, she says.

And diets that exclude dairy products can wreak havoc on the skeleton, especially in people with low bone mass to start.

"What do somebody's bones look like two years later when they haven't had a dairy product?" Daly wonders.

But Hope Warshaw, a Virginia nutritionist who's studied the impact of fad diets and diabetes, says there's "no question" that many diabetics are turning to fad meal plans. Some, she says, are even being steered to the diets by misinformed physicians, a trend Warshaw says she doesn't support.