x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Experts warn on 'hunger strike' diet plan

Dieters who have lost huge amounts of weight sing its praises, but experts have their doubts

DUBAI // A weight loss centre in Dubai is promoting a diet that limits participants food intake to just 400 calories a day, 300 calories below the level that professionals consider necessary to avoid starvation.  

The Cambridge Weight Plan, which was originally devised by a research scientist at Cambridge University in the 1960s and later developed by an American company into a commercial business, restricts calorie intake to controversially low levels. Dieters take vitamin and mineral supplements to supply them with essential nutrients.

Nutritionists widely agree that the average person needs at least 1,200 calories a day, and at least 700 calories to avoid starvation. The World Health Organisation's recommended dietary allowance for an average adult male is 2,900 calories, and 2,200 for an adult female. Dietitians asked about the Cambridge Weight Plan, which allows three meals a day of soup, powdered beverages or chocolate bars, said they had doubts about its safety and sustainability. Sandra Mikhail, a dietitian at Dubai's City Hospital, said that very low-calorie diets are dangerous and should only be used in very extreme cases and under medical supervision.

Side effects, she said, can include muscle breakdown, low blood pressure, gallstones, constipation, and light-headedness. She warned that many people regain the lost weight once they resume eating normally.  The plan is akin to a hunger strike, said Ryan Penny, a weight-loss consultant at the Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre. Jane Darakjian, a dietitian at Manchester Clinic, a private medical clinic based in Jumeirah, said: "The body is going to be tortured, and it doesn't mean [the dieter] is going to lose weight."

Rachel Dacruz, who runs the Cambridge Weight Plan centre, said she only accepted clients who needed to lose at least 8kg and were willing to join her for an hour-long consultation. She then met with clients periodically as they diet. She described the plan as nutritionally complete. "People feel very healthy, full of energy. They are losing weight very quickly so they feel motivated," she said. 

Clients in Dubai include a 21-year-old man who weighed 190kg and dropped 80kg in seven months. Another man lost 100kg in a year.  Manoj Rani, a 42-year-old from India, started the programme last November weighing 145kg and has lost more than 50 kg. "The diet is fantastic," he said. "My cardiologist has given me a clean bill of health."  Mr Rani said people no longer stare at him. His wife sleeps better because he has stopped snoring. He can now fit in airplane economy seats without a seatbelt extension. "Right now I'm just a large," he said.

The appeal of programmes that offer dramatic results is understandable, Mr Penny said, especially in a country where many people increasingly struggle with obesity. "It's a big business," he said. "The vast majority of people who want to lose weight have no idea how the body works. If you dress up a particular programme for an eager market of people who want quick results, they're going to be a dime a dozen."

The Cambridge Weight Plan centre has had 7,000 clients in five years, according to Ms Dacruz. It is not a clinic but a distributor for the meals, which cost Dh250 a week.  The Dubai Health Authority does not monitor weight-loss programmes, though it requires all dietitians to obtain a licence. Low-calorie meal plans can be sold outside of medical centres. chuang@thenational.ae