Dangerous Diets

Hoodia gordonii
Hoodia Gordonii – Does This Look Healthy?

Every year we hear reports of people becoming ill from following extreme “diets”. In some rare cases the diets prove fatal. While many products are regulated and sometimes banned, ideas, misconceptions and bad advice cannot be so easily controlled. Some diet systems are not inherently unhealthy, but due to lack of care and attention and often a disregard for the rules, people put themselves at risk by modifying and tweaking the diet plan.

Here we look at a selection of diet plans and products that have hit the news in recent years. Some due to the controversial nature of the research that is behind them, and some for more tragic reasons.

Meal Replacement Diet Plans

In Devember 2008 we heard of a woman who died after going on the LighterLife diet plan. This was a case where the diet plan itself was not at fault, the problem arose because the dieter did not follow the instructions correctly. The woman in the story died after drinking four litres of water in less than two hours. LighterLife is a meal replacement plan, not unlike Slimfast in that respect.

The LighterLife customer, Mrs. Jacqueline Henson, was hoping to reduce her 89 kg (196 pounds) when she chose the LighterLife meal replacement diet. The diet is aimed at very overweight people. It restricts daily calorific intake to just 500 calories for a period of 12 weeks. Meals are replaced with LighterLife products, which include shake, soups and bars. The rest of the time dieters are advised to drink only water. Mrs Henson lost 5.5kg (11.5 pounds) during the first week of the diet.

On the day that she died, Mrs Henson consumed almost 4 litres of water while sitting watching television. She noticed that her stomach had become solid, and later vomited. She developed a headache, so went to have a lie down. However, the headache was caused by a swelling of the brain caused by excessive water consumption. After collapsing at home, she was admitted to hospital.

A LighterLife relations manager said:

“We are so sorry to hear about Jacqueline and extend our sympathies to her family. Our programme gives clear guidance that water should be consumed regularly over the course of the day, and the coroner confirmed that the events were a tragic accident.”

Her husband, Mr Henson, is now trying to increase awareness of the dangers of consuming too much water.

“I had no idea that much water could kill someone. If I’d have known that I would not have let her drink it.” Mr Henson.

Acai – a “Natural” Weight Loss Supplements

Acai is marketed as a superfood that can aid weight loss. The marketing campaigns are often very aggressive and full of pseudo-science and fake testimonials. Many play on the idea that it is a “natural” diet, suggesting that this somehow makes it healthy. Acai adverts also often focus on the idea of “cleansing the body” to speed up weight loss – another urban myth.

In one advert that we reviewed in December 2008 it was stated that Acai results in:

  • Increased metabolism
  • Better Mood and Attitude
  • Rapid Weight Loss
  • More Self Confidence
  • Cleanse and Detoxify Your Body
  • Much More Energy
  • A Natural Colon Cleanse

The advert then goes on to explain that by “cleansing and detoxifying” your body you naturally speed up your metabolism to burn more fat. The naturalness of Acai is reconfirmed with “There are No Side Effects to the Acai Supplement. It is 100% all natural and carries zero artificial colors, ingredients, and no additives.”

The greatest statement, which really turns what could be a fad into an outright scam, is this: “you don’t need to Change anything in your lifestyle or diet” – once again, they are preying on desperate people who do not actually want to make any lifestyle changes to lose weight.

Finally the marketing letter explains how safe Acai is, once again explaining that it is 100% natural. Of course, this is far from the truth, as the products that are sold are often pills and not freshly picked berries!

Acai is not a Replacement for a Healthy Diet

Like green tea, Acai does have some health benefits. It is jam packed with nutrients and antioxidants. But, it is not the best source of antioxidants, or the best source of vitamins either. For native Caboclo populations in the Amazon, it is the main source of these ingredients. However, we have a wide variety of other sources, all of which can provide similar, and in some cases, better health benefits than acai. So, rather than jump on the Acai bandwagon, pop down to the market and buy some oranges and lemons instead.

Acai and Weight Loss

As for the weight loss? Really it is just another marketing con. Snake oil for fat loss. Like Beyonce’s Maple Syrup diet you will lose weight if you eat nothing but acai – but you will be losing muscle tissue, lowering your metabolism and setting yourself up for a yo-yo bounce and will probably gain all the weight back as soon as you revert to your previous diet.

Hoodia: The Kalahari Diet Scam

In 2009 we reported renewed interest in Hoodia diet pills. Hoodia seems to be yet another weight loss gimmick that is not actually founded on any scientific evidence. However, there really may be more to it, so before we declare Hoodia another weight loss scam, lets examine the evidence and determine if the rise of the Hoodia diet pill / cactus diet over the last decade is justified.

The active ingredient in the Hoodia, cactus, was discovered by western scientists very recently. However, the plant has been used by Kalahari tribesmen for generations, possibly thousands of years, as a means to ward off hunger during long hunting trips. The Hoodia cactus thrives in extremely high temperatures and takes many years to mature. Its flowers smell like rotten meat and are pollinated mainly by flies. It is surprising that anyone ever decided to sample the flesh from this cactus.

Hoodia has no known side effects, other than its possible appetite reducing effect. This makes it an ideal weight loss aid, if used responsibly. The active ingredient in Hoodia is a previously unknown chemical, which the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research named P57 in 1977. British bio-pharmaceutical company Phytopharm bought the rights to Hoodia, and started working on developing it as a weight loss pill.

They then sold the development and marketing rights to the giant Pfizer Corporation who took over development. The deal allowed Phytopharm to develop semi-synthetic variants of the drug by itself while Pfizer developed botanical versions, Pfizer released the rights to the primary ingredient in 2002.  This may come as a surprise now, considering the huge market that Hoodia now represents.

It has been suggested that for Pfizer to release something dealing with obesity they must have believe that there was no merit to its oral use. Pfizer states that development on P57, the active ingredient of hoodia, was stopped due to the difficulty of synthesizing P57. Jasjit Bindra, lead researcher for hoodia at Pfizer, states there were indications of unwanted effects on the liver caused by other components, which could not be easily removed from the supplement, adding:

“Clearly, hoodia has a long way to go before it can earn approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Until safer formulations are developed, dieters should be wary of using it.” Jasjit Bindra, Hoodia specialist, Pfizer.

However, the obstacles seem to have been overcome, as Hoodia, in many forms, is now widely available.

How Does Hoodia Work?

In 2003 Phytopharm were still convinced of its effectiveness, and described the process:

There is a part of your brain, the hypothalamus. Within that mid-brain there are nerve cells that sense glucose sugar. When you eat, blood sugar goes up because of the food, these cells start firing and now you are full. What the Hoodia seems to contain is a molecule that is about 10,000 times as active as glucose. It goes to the mid-brain and actually makes those nerve cells fire as if you were full. But you have not eaten. Nor do you want to.” Dr Richard Dixey, Phytopharm, 2003.

So Hoodia works simply by tricking the brain into thinking that you are not hungry at all. In one non-scientific study of people taking Hoodia, subjects ate on average 35% less than normal, which is a significant reduction in daily calorific intake. Certainly enough to trigger weight loss. However, there is still no published scientific evidence that hoodia works as an appetite suppressant in humans (observations and studies are not the same as scientifically proven results). Although there are more reports now strengthening the case for Hoodia, some medical weight loss experts remain sceptical and do not recommend hoodia to obese patients.

Marketing of Hoodia and Internet Spam

A lack of scientific evidence or regulatory approval have not stopped companies from marketing Hoodia gordonii with claims that it can lower blood pressure and reduce the appetite. Many companies have even claimed that celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey vouch for the effectiveness of Hoodia. However, the original article that appeared in a magazine in 2005 only mentions that Hoodia may be a tool for aiding weight loss, as it is used by the Kalahari tribesmen. There is not actually any evidence of Oprah Winfrey endorsing its use, or even actually ever using it.

Hoodia Today

In November 2008 Unilever pulled out of deal with Phytopharm to continue commercial development of Hoodia. Reasons have not been disclosed. However, it could indicate that scientific trials have proved inconclusive, simply meaning that it may not be a wonder drug for obesity after all.

Hoodia gordonii products are currently being marketed in a variety of formats to include: capsules, tablets, liquid tinctures, coffee and infusions, syrups, protein shakes and even diet fruit bars.

Whether you chose to try Hoodia is up to you. But be warned, like Acai berries and Green Tea, there is still no firm evidence that it will help you to lose weight. Hoodia could well prove to be one of the biggest diet scams of the 21st Century, driven almost entirely by internet spam.

Some people are proclaiming Hoodia to have ever increasing benefits, which include:

  • Increase energy
  • Have an  aphrodisiac quality
  • Cure hangovers
  • Control appetite
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Fight Cancer
  • Stop the ageing process

It seems that no matter how little scientific evidence is found for supporting the health benefits of Hoodia, people continue to peddle it online. If it really was a perfect diet pill with no side effects, then it would have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and be available on prescription by now. However, it is not. Still the advice for obese and overweight patients is to eat a calorie controlled diet and exercise.

Be warned, as some celebrity websites are claiming that it has caused some people to lose too much weight. However, there are conditions called anorexia an bulimia which could explain the unhealthy weight loss experienced by some celebs. Blaming a pill could just be a sign that they are living in denial of their condition.

Raw Vegan Diets

In June 2008 the Independent newspaper published an article about a family who had gone vegan, with terrible consequences. A mother, Holly Paige, adopted a raw vegan diet for her family thinking that it was a very healthy and nutritious way of eating. But the diet led to her daughters having growth problems, both being below average height and weight for children of their age, with reduced bone density and very skinny arms and legs.

They had also swollen bellies and pinched cheeks, and most worrying, small holes appearing in their teeth. This was after three years of a raw vegan diet which included copious amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, seeds, grains, soya and pulses. But of course, no meat, fish, milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, eggs, or any of animal product for that matter.

On one occasion one of her daughters that was on the vegan diet instinctively grabbed a block of butter while shopping in a supermarket and started gnawing into it. For a three year old who had never tasted butter before, this showed that some very strong natural instincts were at play here, making her ravenous when around fatty and protein rich foods.

Her mother realized later that she had been brainwashed into thinking that a raw vegan diet was healthy, and that dairy products were bad for your health. It turned out that her children were suffering from extreme vitamin D and protein deficiency. She quickly stopped the vegan diet. They still mostly eat a raw diet, but do eat dairy, such as butter cheese, eggs and sometimes fish.

Being a raw vegan is not that same as just a standard vegan, as raw vegans have a much more limited range of foods on offer. For example, raw vegans cannot eat fortified cereals or baked goods, limited grains, and only a few types of pulses. Also, cooking food makes it more digestible for humans, and increases the amount of nutrients that can be absorbed into the body.

In another case last week, an eight year old Scottish vegan was admitted to hospital with rickets. Her spine was so damaged that it was more like that of an eighty year old woman than an eight year old. Rickets is a bone condition that is caused by lack of vitamin D. Although vitamin D is naturally produced in the body when exposed to sunlight, the average Brit cannot get enough sunlight to produce vitamin D. Therefore a diet high in vitamin D is essential, and for this, oily fish, eggs and butter is the only way to obtain it.

However, the British Dietitian Association points out that being a vegan can be done healthily, but only if you know what you are doing, and consume the right foods and the correct supplements. They point out that professional advice is essential for anyone going on a restrictive diet.

It may be a little harsh to say that a raw vegan diet is bad for you. But a raw vegan diet done badly, with no knowledge of vitamins and nutrients, can certainly be very bad for your health, both short term and long term. In the case of the 8 year old girl, her spine may never recover fully.

Normal vegan diets are healthy and some athletes experience a performance improvements as a result. See our article on vegan fitness to learn more.

Vitamin Diets

The health benefits of vitamins has been exaggerated so much in recent years that some people are now doing themselves more harm than good by taking supplements. While some vitamins are perfectly safe at any level, others can cause ill health.

In 2008 studies were published which showed that some vitamin supplements are actually likely to do you harm rather than make you healthier. Many people started taking vitamins in high doses with the hope that they would boost their immune system and make them stronger and healthier. Celebrities are famous for taking vitamin supplements.

Robbie Williams had a dose of multivitamins injected into his bum after a particularly intensive party, and Madonna was also reported to have given Justin Timberlake a B12 vitamin injection in his backside.

Apparently Justin Timberlake was feeling a bit tired, and Madonna offered him a shot from one of her syringes stashed in her handbag. Geri Halliwell has reportedly used vitamin injections to keep going when she was on a starvation diet and skeletally thin. But were they actually improving their long term health? Here are the main problem vitamins:

Vitamin A (retinol)

Helps keep skin healthy, enhances immunity and helps you see in dim light. But all you need is 0.7mg a day if you are a man and o.6mg if you are a woman, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which says you can get all you need from foods such as cheese, eggs, oily fish, milk and yogurt. Liver, another source, is not recommended for pregnant women. More than 1.5mg of per day may make your bones more brittle and prone to fracture as you age.

Vitamin C

We need around 4omg a day and it is not stored in the body because it is water soluble – but we should get enough from a normal diet. It is in a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and protects cells and helps the body absorb iron. Taking less than 1000mg in supplements is unlikely to do harm, says the FSA, but large amounts can cause diarrhoea and flatulence.


Turns into vitamin A in the body. You should get all you need from a varied diet, in particular from yellow and green leafy vegetables such as spinach, carrots and red peppers; and yellow fruit such as mangos, melons and apricots. Too much beta-carotene can increase the chances of smokers developing lung cancer. The FSA recommends taking no more than 7mg a day in supplements.

Vitamin E

Protects cell membranes. It is fat soluble, so the body will store it and you do not need a dose every day. It is found in plant oils, nuts and seeds and wheat germ in cereals. The FSA advises that taking too much supplementary vitamin E is not a good idea, but less than 540mg a day is “unlikely to cause any harm”.


The tiny amounts we need should be easily obtained from meat, nuts, bread, fish or eggs. It has an important role in the immune system, in thyroid hormone metabolism, reproduction and prevention of damage to cells and tissues; Too much can lead to loss of skin, hair and nails, but ingesting less than 0.3 mg a day will do no harm.

Weight Loss Tea Pills

In October 2010 a UK medicine watchdog has discovered that two types of weight loss tea contain substances that are banned in Europe and America. Payouji tea and Pai You Guo Slim capsules both contain a diet drug called sibutramine. This substance was banned by health departments in January this year due to serious side effects including heart attacks and stroke.

Sibutramine – Banned Weight Loss Drug

The drug was originally approved in 1997, however studies on people taking the medicine have revealed serious side effects that were not seen during human trails. As a result the medicine has been withdrawn. Unfortunately, some companies are still adding it to their weight loss products.

Many herbal weight loss products in America have been recalled recently as a result of this substance.

Read the Ingredients and Side Effects

If you have any weight loss pills or herbal remedies it is vital that you read the label and the leaflet to check whether or not this substance is present. You should also familiarise yourself with the known side effects of any medicine you take so that if you start to suffer from any usual symptoms you can take action immediately.

If you find your weight loss pills contain sibutramine stop taking them immediately.

Report Side Effects of Weight Loss Medicines

It is also recommended that if you suffer any unusual side effects while taking any medicine, whether for weight loss or anything else, that you report it. Sometimes medicines pass human trials but are still not safe. Only if people report problems early on can serious problems be prevented.

In the UK you can report unusual side effects to the Yellow Card Scheme which is run by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

Other Dubious, Dangerous and Fad Diets

Other diets and plans that we have reported on in the past include the Accu fat burning beads, which are now banned in the UK and USA. Fat burning pills are often advertised and again, few people read up on the possible side effects of these pills, or understand their uses and limitations. Another really scammy deal are the HCG Weight Loss Diets.

We looked at green tea in some detail recently, and concluded that although there may be a slight improvement in weight loss when it is taken, it really does very little to help people to lose weight – other than having a strong placebo effect.

One of the most popular “diets” is still the so called “Lemonade Diet“, which is actually just a fast (starvation). You cannot call something a diet if it does not involve eating!

Dieting really is a case of “everything in moderation“. Many of the foods and products that are good for us in moderation can become harmful when taken in excess. Whether it is protein, fat, vitamins, caffeine or even water, care must be taken that you do not get carried away with a poorly planned and misunderstood diet plan. It is always better to eat moderately, follow a simple, healthy and balanced diet and exercise often!


Extreme diets on eBay warning” by Tulip Mazumdar – BBC Newsbeat

How our vegan diet made us ill” by Natasha Mann – Independent.co.uk

Press release: Warning over unlicensed herbal Payouji tea and Pai You Guo Slim Capsules” – Mhra.gov.uk

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