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How fad diets affect heart health

In this day and age, it seems like a new diet pops up every time we turn on the TV. As consumers, trying to sort through all of this information and divide fact from fad can be an overwhelming task.

As dietitians, our job is to help people develop nutrition strategies to achieve their goals while at the same time optimizing their health. Unfortunately, many of the most well-known diets attempt to use excessive restriction of calories and/or food choices to promote rapid weight loss without the actual support of scientific evidence.

What the headlines won’t tell you is that many of these strategies can actually slow down metabolism long-term, and more importantly, put a huge strain on the heart.

Let’s break down some of the most recent nutrition trends — what can we learn from each and what do we need to watch out for?

Fasts, Cleanses and Detoxes, Oh My!

Oftentimes, these diets call for short-term abstinence from a regular solid diet using shakes, juices, or teas to “reboot” or “jump-start” your metabolism.

While these diets may boast rapid weight loss, we also see rapid changes in vitamin levels such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and copper, which all play an important role in heart contraction. Deficiencies in these vitamins may increase the risk of irregular heartbeat and cardiac arrest.

In the context of heart health, eating excessive amounts of red meat and butter may increase saturated fat intake, ultimately raising cholesterol levels and increasing risk of heart attack and stroke.

The good news is that these strategies often place a greater emphasis on antioxidant-containing foods like fruits and vegetables. Instead of jumping on the next “14-day colon cleanse” focus on nutrient-dense foods full of fiber and vitamins to nourish your body and keep yourself full longer.

With the right fuel, your body’s organs do an amazing job of absorbing nutrients and cleansing itself. If it ain’t broke, no need to fix it!

Processed Foods

Many of the “all-natural” approaches we hear about, such as the Paleo diet, give people the notion that restricting processed foods, alcohol, salt and sugar altogether is the best way to optimize health. While eating these foods in excess can definitely have adverse side effects, cutting out these options cold turkey could actually lead to temptations that may send dieters into a downhill spiral later down the road.

The key here is, don’t be afraid of any one food! Focus on getting all of your food groups throughout the day and enjoy what you eat. Keep eating all of your favorite foods, including the processed ones, just be mindful and use moderation.

The Fat Fad

Another recent trend has been ditching carbohydrates for a higher fat approach. The common question seems to be: do we need carbohydrates, or are they just making us fat? The short answer is that carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of fuel, especially for our brains. Because of this, simply avoiding all carbs can be an unpleasant and even dangerous approach to losing weight.

Fats are an important source of energy, but excess fat can actually build up in blood vessels and lead to atherosclerosis and stroke.

On the other side of the coin, trying to implement a primarily fat-based diet may put dieters at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Fats are an important source of energy, but excess fat can actually build up in blood vessels and lead to atherosclerosis and stroke. Minimal carbohydrate intake can also impair blood flow through coronary arteries, ultimately leading to damage of the heart muscle.

These high fat strategies make a great point, however, about the importance of keeping healthy fats in your diet. Polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fats found in foods like nuts, avocados and olive oil are in fact great for heart health.

Dieting can be a great tool to improve body composition, quality of life and heart health, but intelligent approaches need to be the standard and not the exception. Focus on a balanced diet, include the foods you love and use realistic goals. We need to be encouraging people to invest in themselves; life is a long road and our health should be our focus in the long haul.

Curious about your heart health? Take the heart disease quiz to find out if you’re at risk.

Information in this blog post was contributed by Peter Ritz, Lauren Pittman and Anna Strle, dietetic interns at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.

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How fad diets affect heart health