Atkins. Fruitarian. South Beach. Rainbow. Master Cleanse. Raw Food.
Whether it is to reach a healthy lifestyle or simply to fit into a pair of jeans, the plethora of diets is proof of a diet-obsessed nation. From Lord Byron’s vinegar diet in 1820 to the recent cabbage soup craze, the quest for dramatic weight loss and positive health results has thrived for generations.
On any given day, almost half the women and 1 in 4 men in the United States are on a diet, according to Inch-Aweigh.com. While some diets promote fitness and well-being, others can encourage rapid weight loss for either spiritual detoxification or to achieve a svelte figure.
According to UC Santa Cruz counseling psychologist Susan Golbe Walsh, college students are particularly drawn to dieting and weight loss.
“The college years are a prime developmental time in terms of identity issues and it’s a large transition time,” Walsh said. “There is a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of competition, there’s a lot of sports. So that can be an issue in terms of dieting.”
A Short-Term Fix?
The original concept of the healthy diet has been torn up, processed, and airbrushed into a series of various — and at times bizarre — diets specifically designed for detox and rapid weight loss.
Second-year Cowell student Kayla Smith* said she did not feel the need to diet until she gained weight in college.
Initially, upon entering college, Smith lost about 15 pounds due to stress. However, as she settled into the new school and environment, Smith slowly began to gain the weight back by the summer, she said, and a few extra pounds as well.
“My mom always says mean things when I’ve gained weight,” Smith said. “She asked me if I was attempting to reach my ultimate huge.”
American spending trends make clear that countless people dread reaching their “ultimate huge.”
According to a study made by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) in 1996, Americans spend $40 billion on dieting and diet-related products each year.
Last summer, Smith began a series of different weight loss methods or “fad diets.” Among them was the Master Cleanse, which requires seven to 10 days of consuming nothing but a mixture of lemon juice, water, cayenne pepper and maple syrup, accompanied by a cup of laxative tea every night.
“It’s supposed to help cleanse out your body,” Smith said. “To relieve your body of excess body fat storage.”
Although this diet sounds far from appealing, it has been known to work its magic on many a Hollywood star. Singer and actress Beyoncé Knowles purportedly used the Master Cleanse to slim down for her role in the award-winning film “Dreamgirls.” The starlet was reported to have lost 20 pounds in a period of 10 days.
“You’re supposed to do it over a break so you can rest, but I did mine while I was at school,” Smith said. “I had to stop in the middle because I almost fainted a couple times.”
Although her experience with the Master Cleanse was not a positive one, she and a friend plan on trying it again the first week of this summer.
Smith has attempted numerous other diets as well, including a 10-day raw food diet, and various one- to two-week-long crash diets. Crash diets typically restrict caloric intake over a short period of time to achieve rapid weight loss.
For now, Smith has temporarily switched to veganism until the summer in hope of finding a happy medium that uses healthy dieting to achieve safe weight loss.
Despite the popularity of diets, they only provide a temporary solution to a long-term issue, said UCSC Health Center nutritionist Nancy Jackson.
“It’s a short-term fix because you know you’re going back to something else,” Jackson said. “It’s important to make healthy lifestyle changes that last you forever.”
Jackson described her vision of how people should eat.
“The ideal diet includes good sources of protein, whole grains, a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables, calcium and some sorts of fatty acids,” Jackson said. “How much of these and where people get them is individualized.”
In her bestselling book “You Are What You Eat,” Gillian McKeith identifies the “fad diet” and labels it a sham.
“Conventional and traditional fad diets usually do not work,” McKeith wrote in the book. “Fad diets operate on restricting you, and in effect will usually starve you of something important that your body needs.”
Jackson said that the recommended rate of weight loss for the average person who plans on losing weight is 1 to 1.5 pounds a week. However, she explained that this rate can still vary from person to person.
“People learn lifestyle skills that help them maintain that weight loss,” Jackson said.
When Diets Turn Deadly
Steven Williams*, a UCSC third-year, spent half of his high school experience suffering from a secret eating disorder. Williams lost about 80 pounds in the period of a few months, at one point dropping down to a low of 108 pounds.
Williams initially changed his diet in an effort to lead a healthier lifestyle.
“I didn’t want to be the fat guy in everyone’s group of friends,” Williams said. “It started out as me trying to be healthier.”
Eventually Williams’ diet spiraled out of control, however, and he reached a point where all he could think about was diet and exercise.
“Everyone was always telling me, ‘Oh, you’re losing weight, you’re looking good!’” Williams said. “And after a while it just came to a point where [losing weight] was just easy.”
It got so bad that Williams developed an obsession with counting every last calorie and exercising until he was out of breath.
“I just counted calories like crazy,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t even drink orange juice, because it had too many calories.”
Williams said that his previous diet was not even on the same spectrum as being healthy.
“I didn’t know how to be healthy — I just knew not to eat,” Williams said.
Williams somehow managed to hide his eating disorder from everyone, including his own family.
“I didn’t want anyone to find out,” Williams said. “I would throw food away in the Dumpsters outside of our apartment so that it looked like I was eating.”
Counseling psychologist Walsh discussed the onset of many eating disorders.
“I see them as a very complex issue,” Walsh said. “They are largely identity crises. The suffering has a lot to do with not knowing what you want.”
Williams said he wanted to be thin more than anything.
“I liked that my thighs didn’t touch when my legs were together,” Williams said. “I liked that my hands were so bony.”
What saved Williams was his close-knit group of college friends, he said.
“It helped [that I] developed a supportive social network that I didn’t have at home,” Williams said. “They didn’t care if I was fat or skinny.”
Today Williams is optimistic and his eating habits have changed dramatically. He now eats well-rounded meals and is living a healthy life.
Walsh said that eating disorders are a serious issue that generally requires medical and psychological treatment for a full recovery.
“Find a professional field, or come to Counseling and Psychological Services [CPS],” Walsh said. “I think reaching out and telling somebody that you feel safe with is a really important first step.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, more than 1 in 3 dieters eventually progress to pathological dieting. One-fourth of these people will suffer from partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.
“‘Diet’ used to mean what someone’s eating patterns were,” Walsh said. “[The fear of gaining weight is] a culturally produced anxiety. There’s a fear around ‘What’s going to happen if I am fat?’ or ‘Do I look fat?’”
Williams said it is important to focus less on dieting and more on just loving one’s own body.
“We live in a culture that’s very focused on body image,” Williams said. “Just try and stand back and look at yourself. Listen to your friends, and listen to the people that care about you.”
*Names have been changed to maintain privacy.
For information about the UCSC Eating Disorder Treatment Program contact: Sheri Sobin, Family Nurse Practitioner – 459.3952
Students with eating disorders may enter the treatment program through self-referral or by referral from Psychiatry, CPS, or a clinician at the Student Health Center.
For information about the on-campus Eating Awareness Group contact: MaryJan Murphy, Ph.D. 459.2120