Side Effects of Dieting

Simple solutions to eight diet nuisances
By Victoria Shanta Retelny, R.D.

You know who she is: that always-eager coworker who was sweet as pie last week but is suddenly having a hissy fit when you take the last Sharpie from the supply closet, nodding off in the 4 p.m. staff meeting, and making you want to hold your nose every time she exhales. Cut her some slack: She’s just on a diet. And those side effects — crankiness, exhaustion, and bad breath, to name a few — can be as tough to deal with as the relentless cravings for peanut butter cheesecake. In the event that you’re the one dieting, use these tips to ease your weight-loss woes. Trust us: You’ll feel a whole lot better (and your friends and coworkers will too).

Side Effect No. 1 You Can Give Oscar The Grouch A Run For His Money
Why it happens: You’re not eating enough carbs, or you’re not eating them often enough. Carbohydrates supply energy to the entire body, but the brain is the only organ that is solely carb-dependent, says Felicia D. Stoler, R.D., an exercise physiologist in New York City. Carb consumption stimulates production of serotonin, the brain chemical that lifts your mood. So too few carbs can make you feel — and act — like Paris Hilton on a bad bikini day.

Slim solution: Keep blood sugar levels (and your emotions) on an even keel by eating about every 3 hours. Scatter your carbs throughout the day rather than devouring them all in one shot. And choose ones that are high in fiber, like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables: They’re released into the bloodstream more slowly than their refined cousins (white flour, sugar) and cause fewer peaks and valleys in blood sugar levels, says New Yorkbased dietitian Marissa Lippert, R.D. See ya, Mallomar; hello, mango.

Side Effect No. 2 Your Period Is All Screwy
Why it happens: Dietary fat is one of the building blocks of estrogen production. So if you eat too little of it, your estrogen levels may drop — and your period may get delayed, or you may skip it altogether. Simply put: “Fat is necessary for menstruation to happen,” says Faye Berger Mitchell, R.D., a dietitian in Bethesda, Maryland. Not only are wacky periods bad for your bod, they’re clearly a problem if you want to get pregnant.

Slim solution: Chew some fat, for heaven’s sake! “The specific amount of fat needed differs from woman to woman,” Berger Mitchell says. But if your cycle is out of whack, you should get 30 percent of your calories from fat, according to Suzanne Phelan, Ph.D., assistant professor at Brown Medical School, the Miriam Hospital. That’s 480 fat calories in a 1,600-calorie-a-day diet. And remember: Fat can actually help you lose weight because it keeps you full and makes your dinner taste better. Just make sure most of those fat calories come from poly- and monounsaturated fats (the “good” ones, found in foods like olive oil, walnuts, fish, and avocados).

Side Effect No. 3 Your Feet — And Hands — Feel Like Ice
Why it happens: A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the body temperature of people who cut calories by 25 percent (that’s 400 calories from a 1,600-calorie daily diet) fell significantly. “Having cold hands and feet all the time is a sign that the body is conserving calories rather than burning them,” Berger Mitchell says. Translation: Since your body has to burn energy to keep you warm, the less you “feed the furnace,” the more it tries to conserve the energy you do have, and the chillier you’ll be.

Slim solution: Keep cozy by eating at least 1,200 calories a day and chowing down regularly (that’s roughly three meals and two snacks per day). Warm socks and woolly mittens help too.

Side Effect No. 4 Your Breath Could Strip Wallpaper
Why it happens: When your body doesn’t get enough carbohydrates to keep itself running, it produces fatty acids called ketones and burns them as fuel. This process, known as ketosis, is the bane of the Atkins dieter because — how shall we put this? — it reeks. (See “Feeling Funky”) To give you an idea of how powerfully stinky ketones are: Acetone, the smelly stuff that’s in nail polish remover, is a ketone. No surprise, then, that ketosis can produce an odor that rivals the stench from your gym socks after a marathon.

Slim solution: Make sure to eat at least 50 grams of carbs a day — about the amount in an apple and two pieces of whole-grain toast. That should be enough to keep ketosis and its offensive by-products at bay, according to research in the journal Nutrition Reviews.

Side Effect No. 5 Sex? Who Needs It?
Why it happens: “If fat intake gets too low, women can experience decreased lubrication, sensation, and arousal,” says Laura Berman, Ph.D., director of the Berman Center, a sexual health clinic in Chicago. Blame it on those harebrained hormones. A study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that low estrogen levels caused a disruption in physiological sexual responses in women that pretty much prevented orgasms.

Slim solution: Bottom line, ladies: Your body needs fat to feel good. Get your 30 percent. And the healthier the fat, the better: Some research has shown that eating heart-healthy fats improves blood flow to all your body’s organs (that includes Miss Thang).

Side Effect No. 6 You’re Backed Up
Why it happens: If you’re eating fewer carbs than you’re used to, you’re probably also skimping on insoluble fiber — the kind that adds bulk to your digestive tract and keeps things running smoothly. “When you cut out carbs, it’s hard to consume 25 grams of fiber a day — the amount you need for healthy bowel functioning,” says Bethany Doerfler, R.D., a dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Wellness Institute in Chicago.

Slim solution: Count your fiber grams and try to get your daily 25. It’s not that hard: One apple with the skin contains 3.5 grams of fiber; a half cup of kidney beans or lentils has 7 grams; a half cup of Fiber One cereal has 14 grams. To get the fiber content (and other nutritional information) of virtually any food, visit the USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory.

Side Effect No. 7 Eyes…Getting…Heavy…
Why it happens: Eating less can tire you out. If you weigh 140 pounds, you have a resting metabolic rate (RMR) of around 1,400 calories. That’s how many calories your body would use if you spent all day on the couch watching a Law & Order marathon. On a day of normal activity you might burn 2,000 calories. So it’s no shocker that you find yourself limping to Starbucks at 3 p.m. if you’re getting only 1,000 calories a day: Your body starts moving more slowly to conserve the few calories it’s taken in. You may also be skimping on iron, especially if you’re avoiding foods like red meat or beans, says New York City nutritionist Lisa Drayer, R.D. Iron is essential for delivering oxygen to your body’s cells, so too little of it can make you sleepy.

Slim solution: We’ve said it before: Eat at least 1,200 calories a day, 1,400 if you’re exercising. Also, make sure to get at least 18 milligrams of iron a day, either from foods like dried fruit, leafy greens, and whole grains, or a supplement. (To calculate your RMR and fine-tune your caloric needs, go to “Your Perfect Weight: Get There, Stay There”.)

Side Effect No. 8 Oh No — Stretch Marks?!
Why it happens: “Even weight changes of 10 to 15 pounds can cause stretch marks,” says Murad Alam, M.D., a dermatologist at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital. When skin expands and contracts with weight gain and loss, its structural proteins — collagen and elastin — break down. Stretch marks are scars that reveal where the stretching took place. The more your weight fluctuates, the more likely you are to get them.

Slim solution: Stretch mark creams generally don’t work well, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. But treatment with a pulsed dye laser can take away redness by targeting topical blood vessels, says Brad Katchen, M.D., a New York City dermatologist. It’s a painless procedure, generally requiring two office visits at about $450US a pop. The results can last for years. To find out more, ask your dermatologist.

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