Fad Diets: Health or Hype?

Seems like there’s always a new lose-weight-quick scheme every time you turn around -- but are these plans safe and effective, or are you better off with traditional diet strategies? Read on as our experts explore four popular diet trends. (And before you try any weight-loss plan, get your doctor’s okay first.)

Fad #1: Juicing

The skinny: Toss a few of your favorite fruits and vegetables into a juicer and sip your low-calorie ‘meals.’

Is it safe? Yes, so long as you use caution, since this diet is severely calorie-restrictive. “A diet that’s focused on fruit and vegetables is nutritionally inadequate,” says Alison Massey, RD, a dietitian at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.Be prepared to be hungry, too, if you plan to have nothing but juice three times a day. “Juice alone doesn’t give you the sense of fullness you get when you eat a whole fruit or vegetable, including skin, seeds, peel and fiber,” says Sharon Palmer, RD, a dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet. “This is what offers you more nutrients and gets absorbed more slowly into your bloodstream.”

Bottom line: If you want to try juicing, your best bet is to use it as a substitute for one meal – say, breakfast – and to include a variety of fruits and greens. For the rest of the day, eat a balanced diet that includes protein and complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and beans. If you’re diabetic, keep the fruit content of your juices to a minimum, as those natural sugars can cause a spike in blood glucose levels -- and be sure to discuss your juicing plan with a doctor.  

Fad #2: Green Coffee Bean Extract

The skinny: Touted as a miracle fat burner, green coffee bean capsules (extract of coffee beans that haven’t been roasted) contain chlorogenic acid, which is believed to slow the release of glucose into the body after a meal. Despite this, there’s also a fair amount of controversy over whether this actually works.

Is it safe? It’s too soon to say. Despite manufacturer claims that green coffee bean extract is a great way to lose weight, not many studies have been done on it to back them up. “There just isn’t enough science in humans to say that it’s effective,” Palmer says.

Bottom line: Skip this until there’s better evidence to support the idea that coffee beans can help you shed pounds.

Fad #3: SENSA

The skinny: Otherwise known as the ‘Sprinkle Diet,’ the concept of this plan is that you merely sprinkle this ‘patented’ blend of maltodextrin, tricalcium phosphate and silicate (available in either a sweet or salty flavor) onto your food. Since this ingredient combo promotes a feeling of fullness, you’ll ideally eat less and lose weight by taking in fewer calories.

Is it safe? While the ingredients in this product have been deemed safe by the FDA and the concept of this diet is interesting in theory, you may find that sprinkling is still more trouble than it’s worth. Common side effects that accompany the use of this product include stomachaches, headaches, nausea, constipation and heartburn. In addition, it’s debatable if this product even works. “There’s not much clinical research (that isn’t done by the company) supporting SENSA’s effectiveness regarding weight loss,” Massey says.

Bottom line: Insufficient research plus possible unpleasant side effects equal a verdict of: give this a pass.

Fad #4: The Paleo Diet

The skinny: This popular new eating plan is based on the concept that our cave ancestors stayed healthy and slim by eating only what they could hunt and harvest. Meat, fish, eggs and fresh produce are staples of this diet; cereal, bread, legumes, dairy, salt and potatoes are out.

Is it safe? Not necessarily, especially if you have cardiac issues. “A modern-day Paleo [short for Paleolithic] diet, which puts an emphasis on meat, isn’t an optimal diet for heart disease and cancer prevention,” Palmer says.

Bottom line: Giving up even healthy starches and dairy products for good seems pretty unrealistic, which is why our dietitians give this one a thumbs-down. “I don’t think it's very sustainable,” Palmer says. “It's very difficult to eat this way for the long term.” A better alternative: Cut down on sweets and substitute white bread and pasta for 100% whole grain versions, and you’ll see success without feeling deprived.

How to Sleep Better

For something so essential and refreshing, a good night’s sleep can be elusive. Children, pets, a snoring partner, a worried mind, even TV and bright lights all can disrupt our slumber. In general, healthy adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, but getting the proper amount of shut-eye can be tricky.

Women, typically, are more sleep-deprived than men. According to research from the Better Sleep Council, sixty-eight percent of the women in a survey said they slept less than an average of eight hours per night. The top three factors that affected their sleep: Stress related to work or family issues; colds and allergies; and uncomfortable mattresses or pillows. If you’re having trouble falling and staying asleep, or feeling excessively drowsy during the day, read these tips to learn how to sleep better. . 

Establish a regular bedtime routine and wake-up schedule.

Setting established times for sleeping and waking up -- even on weekends -- is one way to regulate the body’s circadian rhythms. Performing the same soothing activities each night (soaking in a warm bath, listening to calm music, or reading a book) also cues your body to fall asleep.

Unwind.

Let’s face it: Nighttime tends to be when many of us pay bills, work on the computer, discuss family issues and catch up with household chores. But these activities activate your problem-solving side and can ratchet up your worries and stress. Stop them about two to three hours before you’re ready for sleep. (If you’re unable to “turn off” your brain even after finishing your work, talk to your doctor about relaxation therapy, or try some restful yoga poses.)

Get moving.

Research shows that people who exercise daily - say, 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise - have better luck falling asleep. But plan accordingly: If exercise energizes you, don’t do it before bedtime, says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist known as “The Sleep Doctor” because of his specialty in sleep disorders. Aim to get in your workout about four hours before bedtime.

Prime your bedroom.

Use your bedroom just for sleep and sex, not working on a laptop, watching TV or playing video games. Reading can help you relax and feel drowsy, but not if you do it in a bright room; Breus suggests using a book light or a 45-watt bulb at your bedside table. Create an environment that is dark, cool, comfortable and conducive to sleep with dark curtains, a fan, a sound soother or white-noise machine, an eyeshade and earplugs (especially if your partner snores). Breus recommends earplugs with a noise level at 32 or below so you can still hear a fire alarm or your alarm clock. Incidentally, if having your alarm clock within view makes you anxious, tuck it out of sight in a drawer or on the floor by the bed.

Upgrade your mattress and pillows.

If you can’t remember when you bought your mattress, you’re probably due for a new one. A quality mattress lasts roughly nine or 10 years. Pillows should be replaced every year, Breus says. Choose one based on whether you have allergies, your preferred sleep position (on your side, back or stomach) and whether you have back pain.

Dine light at night.

Finish eating a large meal at least two hours before you go to bed, especially if you’re having spicy foods, which might cause heartburn. Breus says that a snack of cereal and milk or high-glycemic-index foods such as graham crackers or pretzels about four hours before bedtime can help you fall asleep. Milk or yogurt contain L-tryptophan, which helps your body settle down.

Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking at night.

Alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes are stimulants that not only make it difficult to fall asleep, but also tend to interrupt your sleep when you do nod off. Breus recommends having coffee, tea, chocolate or soda in the morning or early afternoon and switching to water or fruit juice by about 3 p.m. to ensure the caffeine is out of your system. If you like a drink or two with dinner, follow up each glass with an equal amount of water, which will keep you from becoming dehydrated and allow you to sleep peacefully.

At-Home Solutions for Summer Health Woes!

Summer is a time for days at the beach, pool and park -- don’t let itchy rashes or burned skin be a wet blanket on your fun. But before you run to the pharmacy for a standard over-the-counter remedy, give your home cabinets a gander.  That’s right: A bottle of apple-cider vinegar or a gallon of milk packs surprising healing powers. Check out these natural remedies for six common summer skin problems. (Note: If any of these don’t appear to be working after 24 hours, or if your symptoms worsen, consult your doctor.)

Prickly Heat

Mild cases of this heat-induced rash tend to disappear on their own. In the meantime, to relieve the intense itch, try swabbing the area with a cotton ball soaked with equal parts apple-cider vinegar and water to kill the bacteria that causes the rash. For additional comfort and to prevent future breakouts, wear loose-fitting clothing, shower or bathe immediately after exercising, and dust your chest, thighs and other rash-prone areas with cornstarch baby powder.

Insect Bites

For most bites or stings, Prevention magazine suggests rubbing peppermint essential oil into the center. This cools the bite and increases blood flow, bringing relief. Just be sure to wash your hands afterward. If you don’t have peppermint essential oil, try rubbing an ice cube or holding an ice pack on the area for a similar effect, according to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ava Shamban from the TV show The Doctors. For mosquito bites, dabbing on rubbing alcohol or ammonia also helps, Shamban says. (If you don’t have access to either, a small dab of hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol also works.)

For tick bites, Shamban recommends making a paste for the bite with equal parts apple-cider vinegar and cornstarch. The vinegar tightens the skin, acts as an antiseptic and contains antibiotic properties to help prevent Lyme disease, Shamban says. However, if you notice a red bullseye-shaped rash forming, see your doctor right away.

Sunburn

Mix equal parts whole milk and cool water and apply gently to the sunburn with a washcloth to remove the sting, according to Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a Boston dermatologist.

Swimmer's Ear

The Mayo Clinic also suggests adding 1 tsp. (5mL) of a homemade mixture of equal parts white vinegar and rubbing alcohol to each ear to promote drying and prevent bacteria growth. Tilt your head to the side after each application to allow the drops to drain, then dry the outer part of the ear with a soft cloth or towel.

Poison Ivy

Renowned integrative-medicine pioneer Dr. Andrew Weil says that rinsing affected areas with lots of cold water immediately after exposure, as well as washing with rubbing alcohol, can reduce the symptoms of poison ivy. Another easy remedy: making a thin paste from baking soda and water. “It’s good for a lot of itchy things,” says JoAnn Chambers-Emerson, a registered nurse and educator for the Florida Poison Information Center-Tampa.

Blisters

If walking in sandals or flip-flops leaves your feet blistered, head for the medicine cabinet. Apply hemorrhoid cream to relieve itching and burning, and swab the area with an antiseptic mouthwash to accelerate drying, according to Prevention magazine. (Never try to pop a blister.) To protect your feet in the future, swipe them with a little antiperspirant or pat them with foot powder.

How to Kick the Sugar Habit

Trying to cut down on sugar? Maybe you’ve heard all the health warnings from doctors and government officials, or maybe you’re trying to look better in your swimsuit.

Whatever the reason, you’re on the right track -- Americans are still eating and drinking two or three times the amount of sugar recommended for optimal health. Scientific studies have linked sugar overloads to obesity and health concerns including diabetes, tooth decay, heart disease, stroke, pancreatic cancer and cognitive decline. 

Sugar, which can fuel the brain and temporarily boost energy, occurs naturally in many nutritious fruits, vegetables and dairy products. But it also gets added to a number of foods we may eat every day. The American Heart Association advises women consume no more than 100 calories’ worth of added sugars per day, which comes out to about six teaspoons. But we often get more of the sweet stuff than we realize; manufacturers inject different forms of sweeteners to heighten taste and improve texture in a surprising variety of products.

To gain more control over your own sugar cravings -- and your family’s -- try these health tips from registered dietician Elisa Zied, mother of two and author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips.

Learn Label Language 

Sugar takes many forms, but all of them work in the same way on your body. And even if you skip dessert and take your coffee black, you may still be eating extra sugar in items like pasta sauce, ketchup, salad dressings and frozen dinners without realizing it.

When you shop, check labels closely for things like corn syrup, honey, molasses and nectar, as well as words in the “ose” family:  sucrose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, maltose and glucose. The higher up these words appear on the ingredient list, the higher the sugar content. (Check what’s in your family’s favorite foods at the USDA Database.)

Be Skeptical of “Health” Foods

Don’t assume that products touted as “low-calorie” or “fat-free” are good for you: To make them more palatable, many manufacturers compensate by boosting their sugar content. For instance, one particular brand of “light” whole-wheat bread boasts that it has just 45 calories a slice, but if you look at the ingredient list, you’ll see it contains not only high fructose corn syrup, but also honey, molasses, brown sugar and sucralose -- hardly a dietary bargain! Watch the labels and choose fresh foods as often as possible.

Do Sugar Swaps

When sugar cravings hit, satisfy your sweet tooth with healthier substitutes. For instance, top oatmeal with half a baked apple instead of brown sugar, and freeze banana slices or grapes for a sweet snack.

If you’re baking cookies or cakes for the family, use unsweetened applesauce to replace some of the sugar in the recipe. And when you serve ice cream, spoon a small portion into the bowls and then top them with lots of fresh berries.

Serve Better Beverages

Sweetened beverages -- including fruit drinks -- are the No. 1 source of added sugar in our diets. Just a 12-ounce can of regular soda packs 8 teaspoons of sugar, or 130 calories, while adding no nutrients. Stock your fridge with healthier options, such as water or seltzer with a squeeze of lime, or a blueberry-banana smoothie straight from your blender.

Leave Yourself Some Wiggle Room

It’s okay to indulge in an occasional sweet treat as long as you’re watching your total calories and filling up with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat proteins. “Sometimes it’s okay to have something simply because you want it and it tastes good,” says Zied -- whether that means a glass of low-fat chocolate milk for your kids or an ice pop on a hot summer day for you.

The Best Exercises to Boost Your Metabolism

Can’t seem to lose those last few pounds, even with diet and exercise? Your metabolism could be to blame. Not all of us are blessed with a high metabolic rate, but by making some simple changes to your exercise routine, you can boost your metabolism and help your body burn more calories, even when you’re resting.

“You absolutely can increase your metabolic rate with exercise,” says fitness expert Cindy Whitmarsh, a trainer on ExerciseTV and author of 101 Ways to Work out With Weights. “Muscle burns more calories than fat does, so the more muscle you build, the higher your resting metabolic rate will be. Every muscle cell you gain is like a little internal fire that burns calories, even while you’re sleeping.” Here are Whitmarsh’s top tips for revving up your routine, plus the best exercises to boost your metabolism.

Get Cross-training
If you’ve fallen into a predictable pattern of biking or walking every day, try cross-training to get your body out of its rut and stimulate more muscle growth. Try running on Monday, stair-climbing on Tuesday, weight training on Wednesday, boxing on Thursday, cycling on Friday and jumping rope on Saturday.

Pump up Your Heart Rate
Keeping your heart rate elevated for at least 30 minutes during your cardio routine will boost your metabolism and help your body burn fat faster. Whitmarsh recommends keeping your heart rate within 65 to 85 percent of your heart rate maximum, which you can find by subtracting your age from 220. Multiply that number by 0.65 and then by 0.85 to find this magic fat-burning range. Then, use a heart rate monitor while exercising to help stay in that range.

Try Interval Training
Interval training -- alternating high-intensity exercise bursts with lower-intensity activities -- will break up a stale workout and boost your metabolism. “You’re building muscle and increasing your heart rate so it will stay elevated for a longer time after your workout, and you’ll burn calories longer,” says Whitmarsh.

Keep It Up
The last secret to boosting your metabolism is to choose multifunctional exercises that maximize your muscle gain by working many body parts at once. Whitmarsh’s top five exercises to boost your metabolism can all be done easily at home:

1. Mountain-climbers: Start on the floor in a hands-and-knees position. Lift one bent knee close to your chest. Alternate your knees into your chest by tapping your toes to the floor and back. Repeat 20 to 50 times without stopping.

2. Eight-count Body-builder With Push-up: Start at standing pose. Bring hands to the floor, jump feet back into a high plank. Jump feet out wide, do a push-up, jump feet back together, jump feet back to hands and stand up. Repeat five to 15 times.

3. Squat Into Bicep Curls and Overhead Shoulder Press: Stand holding weights by your sides. Squat down. Stand back up while doing a bicep curl. Perform overhead shoulder press, bring weights back to sides. Repeat eight to 15 times.

4. Walking Lunges While Alternating Bicep Curls and Lateral Shoulder Raises: Stand with weights in each hand. Lunge forward with right leg while doing a bicep curl with right arm. Repeat with left side. Then, lunge forward with right leg while lifting your right arm out to the side. Repeat with left side. Repeat 10 times.

5. Medicine Ball Drop-catch and Overhead Lift: Hold a medicine ball in front of your body with arms straight and legs slightly wider than shoulder width. Lift the ball overhead, keeping arms straight and engaging your core. Then, drop the ball down to the floor as you squat so your thighs are parallel to the floor. Catch the ball at the deepest part of your squat with your arms straight. Lift ball as you stand. Repeat 10 to 20 times.


Photo: @iStockphoto.com/aabejona