Question of the Week

March 8, 2004

"Most 'tweens' (children 9 - 12) give little thought to healthy weight, neither recognizing its immediate benefits nor its long-term importance. They relate their weight to athletic performance and overall appearance--not health..."

While many tweens, teens, and even adults decide to lose weight because of how they look, this is a health decision. Those who are overweight or obese need to look at the long term health consequences of staying at an unhealthy weight. At the same time, those who are underweight or at a healthy weight need to consider that weight should be about health, and losing too much can be unhealthy, as well.

Once you have found a goal in a healthy range for your height and frame, how do you reach that goal in a healthy way? Once you have reached a healthy weight--and no longer need to lose--how should you eat to stay healthy and maintain the best weight for you? Where do you even start?

Right now, there is a lot in the news, on the grocery shelves, and even in restaurants, trying to appeal to those who are trying some form of low-carb diet. Is low-carb the way to go? Is it healthy? Is it safe for you as a teen? It depends on who you ask.

"The staff at Dr. Atkins' medical practice was often asked if a controlled carbohydrate program is healthy for children. The answer is definitely yes, says Robert C. Atkins, M.D., its founder and executive medical director...."

But the Atkins Plan is more than just cutting carbs.

"Vegetables are essential to the Atkins Nutritional ApproachTM....Atkins followers actually eat more servings of vegetables at every phase of the program than most other Americans do. In addition to protein and healthy natural fats, certain vegetables are the foundation of the Atkins way of eating. Vegetables do contain carbohydrates but, in most cases, these are exactly the kinds of carbs you should be consuming."

And there are still those who have serious concerns.

"Right now, five major tests are underway to determine if low carb is better than low fat for losing weight. The results are still years away, but there is a greater, more urgent concern among doctors -- teenagers who are on the Atkins diet....'At this point we don't have enough data to make us feel comfortable that its a safe diet even on a short term basis for teenagers,' Hampl says. Hampl points to the tragic death of a Missouri 16-year-old. Rachel Huskey died while on the Atkins diet. An autopsy revealed low levels of electrolytes, one cause of the heart arrhythmia that killed her, and there are other risks tied to Atkins dieting. 'They also can develop vitamin and mineral deficiencies that need to be supplemented. They can get very dehydrated. It can cause kidney stones. There's a lot of hidden risks that you don't really hear about,' she says."

What else is there?

"Of the many weight loss diets offered over the years (Atkins, Sears / Zone, Sugar Busters, Bernstein, Ornish, Pritikin, Macdougall, Somersize, Beverly Hills, Caveman, Body Type, Body Code, Grapefruit, Herbalife, Scarsdale, NutriSystem, Celebrity, Fit For Life, Food Combining, Cabbage Soup, Subway, South Beach, Volumetrics diet, etc...), they either fall into a low-fat, mostly vegetarian-based category, or they typically promote higher protein (and fat), and low carbs....Many of these (fad) diets unfortunately don't encourage a long-term common sense approach to eating, such as focusing on a balanced and moderate intake of several basic food groups. Being largely do-it- yourself based, they generally don't consider the health implications for anyone following specific dietary recommendations that result in quick weight loss (without establishing individual safety), or they neglect the long-term health effects of Yo-Yo dieting..."

What is the difference between a fad diet and "a long-term common sense approach to eating"? What portion of these weight loss plans are helping people work toward a healthier lifestyle, and how much of it is just marketing?

"U.S. foodmakers are scrambling to satisfy consumer clamorings for low-carbohydrate products, but also see a move toward more balanced eating that could spell doom for the strictest low-carb diets such as Atkins....But even as they push these new products, companies that have been hurt by the backlash against carbohydrates expect consumers will soon back off the more extreme low-carb diets due to growing concerns about their intake of artery-clogging fat and cholesterol. 'Everything in moderation is ultimately where all these things lead to,' said Douglas Conant, chief executive of Campbell Soup Co. 'These diets become fad-like and take on lives of their own...and typically they are not sustainable.'"

Is it possible to start with moderation without first getting caught up in diets that "'become fad-like and take on lives of their own...'"? And what's wrong with trying a fad diet for a while?

"Ultimately, they create a risk for (more) health problems, while at the same time they contribute little or nothing to meet the body's long-term nutritional needs."

Long-term nutritional needs? Just one example:

"You may have already heard about the importance of folic acid; it builds healthy blood cells and may help reduce the risk of heart disease....Folic acid is one of the B vitamins used by your body. Folic acid is used to make red blood cells and important proteins like DNA. Getting enough folic acid is especially important during your growth spurt and during pregnancy....Fortified breakfast cereals are the best food source of folic acid. Green leafy vegetables, some citrus fruits, certain beans, and of course, liver are rich sources of folate. Most teens don't get enough folate and folic acid because their diets may involve lots of fast food and skipped meals."

Those switching to a vegetarian diet need to be sure that they are getting enough protein and other essential nutrients from other (non-meat) sources. In the same way, those who are avoiding carbs (cereals, breads, pastas, etc.) need to be sure that they find other sources from which they can get the vitamins--like folic acid--and minerals that are now less prevalent in their diets.

Questions of the Week:
How can you find "a long-term common sense approach to eating"? What are the components of such a plan? How can you find a balanced diet that is right for you--one that meets the needs of your body and your life?
***Please don't forget: I want to hear from you!***
Students (and teachers), now is your chance to share your ideas, hints, tips, suggestions, and even lesson plans. For more details, you can access a copy of last week's Question of the Week at:

Thank you.

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
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I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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