What's Your Diet Deficit?

Many fad diets leave out more than the carbs, fat, or extra calories

By R. Morgan Griffin
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Anyone who's on a fad diet is painfully aware of some things now missing from the dinner plate. Oh, how you yearn for the simple things you took for granted -- the burger with the bun, the fast food bagel that didn't require your scraping three-quarters of the cream cheese off with a napkin, the simplicity of pouring a container of half-and-half into your coffee instead of letting the mug grow cold while you wait for the waitress to bring the pitcher of skim milk.

But not everything that your diet plan prohibits leaves such an obvious hole in your life. That may not be a good thing. Without your noticing it, your fad diet may be cutting out foods that give you important vitamins and nutrients you really need.

While losing weight is obviously great for your health, it isn't the only thing you need to worry about. But that's all any fad diet is designed to do. Good nutrition is often beside the point.

"I think people lose sight of nutrition when they're dieting," says Elisa Zied, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "But if you're not getting good nutrition, you're not going to feel well."

So besides those much-missed French fries and ice cream, what might you be leaving out of your diet? WebMD talked to some experts to find out what's missing from fad diet plans. In some cases, it may be quite a lot.

Do I Really Need to Worry About Nutrition?

Obviously, we don't mean to overstate the problem. You won't drop dead from a nutritional deficiency after a few months of following a fad diet plan. Our nation's emergency rooms aren't flooded with fad dieters laid low by scurvy and rickets.

But it's easy to underestimate the problem, too. Chronic nutritional deficiencies can make you feel rundown and unwell.

"I definitely see people who have nutritional problems from dieting," Zied tells WebMD. "You need to get laboratory tests to make sure. But sometimes it's obvious. Their skin is sallow, their lips are cracking, or they have bad breath."

Nutritional deficiencies can lead to more serious problems too, especially for people who already have other medical conditions. Many vitamins and nutrients have been shown to help prevent serious diseases, like cancer and heart disease. Sticking to an imbalanced diet for a long time may lead to serious consequences.

High-Protein Diets

High-protein/low-carb fad diets have come under some heavy criticism from the experts.

Zied speaks specifically about the Atkins diet, although many high-protein diets are what she calls "imbalanced diets." "By cutting out carbohydrates, it eliminates the food that is supposed to be the main source of fuel for your body," says Zied.

Many of the high-protein diets ignore the nutritional differences between different kinds of carbohydrates, experts say. But there's a world of difference -- nutritionally speaking -- between carbohydrates like refined sugar and a kiwi, says Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, the "Recipe Doctor" for WebMD's Weight Loss Clinic and the author of Fry Light, Fry Right.

So what specifically might someone on a high-protein diet be missing?

  • Fiber, which is in many of the carbohydrates that are eliminated in high-protein diets, helps with digestion. It may also help prevent some serious diseases, such as heart disease.
  • Water. "Carbohydrates have a lot of water in them," says Zied. "So when you cut them out, it's easy to get dehydrated without realizing it."
  • Vitamins, such as A, B, C, and E, are plentiful in many high-carb vegetables, fruits, and grains.
  • Folic acid is in dark leafy greens and fruits and vegetables. It's also in many fortified foods, like cereals, that Atkins prohibits. Folic acid may reduce the risk of cancers, heart disease, and other problems.
  • Phytochemicals and antioxidants are in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. "We know that these things can help prevent a lot of different diseases, including heart disease and cancer," says Tara Geise, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Many experts also believe that high-protein diets allow far too much fat. And even protein can be a problem in large amounts. "Overloading on protein can harm your kidneys and affect your fluid balance," says Zied. For some people, especially people who already have kidney problems, these diets may be dangerous.

The South Beach Diet

The South Beach diet emphasizes an initial phase of low carbs but later changes to add more "good carbs." With this diet, you may be in danger of not getting enough fiber, vitamins A, B, C, and E, and important phytochemicals and antioxidants from carbohydrates.

"Consider that any fad diet that requires you to take supplements might not be healthy in the long run."