Is a liquid-only diet ever safe?
Is a liquid-only diet ever safe? As Shane Warne dies after a 14-day fast, DR MICHAEL MOSLEY reveals all you need to know about the risks of rapid weight loss… while women who have braved it share their alarming stories
Back in the 1970s, a seemingly revolutionary slimming regime came onto the market, aimed at those desperate dieters who felt they were eating in the last chance saloon.
Created by an American osteopath called Dr Robert Linn, this so-called dieting holy grail required consuming nothing other than liquid protein drinks until you reached your desired weight.
‘When Everything Else Has Failed . . .’ teased the cover of his book. Before drawing the reader’s eye to its irresistible title: The Last Chance Diet.
Daily calorific intake on the regime was incredibly low — below 400 calories a day — so, of course, the weight dropped off.
Unfortunately, among those who managed to stick to this very low-calorie diet, you also had some people dropping dead from heart attacks.
This week, liquid-only diets have come under scrutiny again after the death of legendary Australian cricketer Shane Warne, who followed one for a couple of weeks before going on holiday to Thailand, where he died from a suspected heart attack.
There are reports that he would sometimes go on ’30-day fasting tea diets’ as he battled with his weight throughout his career.
This week, liquid-only diets have come under scrutiny again after the death of legendary Australian cricketer Shane Warne, who followed one for a couple of weeks before going on holiday to Thailand, where he died from a suspected heart attack
Of course, we don’t know exactly how many calories or what sorts of teas Shane might have been consuming, or whether his pre-holiday attempt to slim down played any part in his sudden and tragic death.
But we do know that one of the problems with the diet drinks of the 1970s was that as well as being very low in calories, they were also low in protein, which is important for building muscle — including heart muscle — as well as other essential nutrients.
In a similar vein, there’s a growing understanding that the purely plant-based diets supposedly synonymous with good health and well-being are potentially problematic if they don’t include enough good quality protein.
You need protein to fill you up. Unless you have adequate amounts of it, within 24 hours your body starts to cannibalise itself and get protein from your muscles. A juice diet, for example, is zero protein, so you will lose a small amount of fat and a large amount of muscle.
The diet shakes of the 1970s contained protein, but it was cheaply sourced — the sort that came largely from the tendons, ligaments and skin of animals.
Living on nothing but chemically pre-digested cowhide and tendons, scavenged from the slaughterhouse floor and then enhanced with artificial flavourings and sweeteners, was never likely to end well.
Since the days of that awful ‘Last Chance Diet’ a great deal of research has gone into low-calorie diets, and the general consensus among scientists and nutrition experts is that 800 to 1,000 calories is about as low as you should go unless under medical supervision.
Dietary regulators these days insist that any low-calorie weight-loss products should have a minimum energy content of 600 calories a day (stock image)
Dietary regulators these days insist that any low-calorie weight-loss products should have a minimum energy content of 600 calories a day. I would certainly hope that Shane wasn’t doing anything more extreme than that.
The problem with more punishing forms of dieting is that you run the potential risk of not getting enough protein and other important micronutrients into your body. If you’re frail or suffering from an underlying health condition, a heart problem for example, any resulting deficiencies could exacerbate it.
Unsurprisingly, the cheap weight-loss products of the 1970s gave meal replacement drinks a bad reputation.
But today’s good quality modern versions — which I’m happy to recommend to people following my Fast 800 Weight Loss Programme — are a brilliant tool for properly managed regimens, especially when used alongside healthy eating. These contain high-quality ingredients, which provide that all-important protein in a form that the body can properly absorb and use.
Even so, before embarking on a weight-loss programme, I advise anyone on medication or who is physically frail to get checked out by their GP first.
We’re still in the dark as to whether Shane had any health issues, undiagnosed or otherwise.
But what we do know is that you only have to turn to TikTok or Instagram to find a wide range of extreme diets and dieting products being offered as weight-loss panaceas, with very little science behind them.
Often, they promise the kind of ‘shredded’ body — one visibly devoid of muscle-obscuring fat — of the type Shane may have been hoping to rediscover from his cricketing heydays. A social media influencer with a six-pack might look well qualified to offer weight-loss tips. But unless you can be certain they’ve combed through a hefty pile of scientific studies first, it would be safer to steer clear.
That said, there is a place for liquid diet products in the modern weight-loss arena. In fact, the NHS is currently getting good results using them to try and reverse Type 2 diabetes in patients, but this is a hospital-based trial of meal replacement drinks — which contain protein — and is being conducted in a hospital under supervision.
But outside of the realms of a supervised diet, it’s generally better to include them in a regime, rather than rely on them altogether. On my Fast 800 Programme, I encourage people to use meal replacement drinks alongside trying out new, healthy, low-calorie recipes. That way, consistent healthy eating becomes sustainable in the long term.
The news about Shane Warne is distressing, but it shouldn’t put anyone off striving for a healthier lifestyle. However, if you have any doubts about your health, whether you’re going liquid-only or reducing your calories to a healthy but low level, please do get yourself checked out first.
- To find out more, check out thefast800.com
We tried it- and never will again
Merle Chrichton, 29, became depressed after going on a five-day juice cleanse with an online company last month.
‘You could choose a ‘strength’ or ‘detox’ diet,’ recalls Merle, who paid £150 for a five-day supply of juices. At 5 ft 8 in and 9 st 13 lb, she was by no means overweight, but says, ‘I wanted to feel better with the benefit of losing a few pounds.’
Her ‘diet’ consisted of four green juices a day, comprised of celery, spinach, cucumber and pear, and one slightly higher calorie drink made of nut milk. The juices comprised a total of 895 calories a day.
‘On the first day I felt fine, but by day two I was really tired and dropped off for a few minutes at my desk,’ says Merle, who lives with her boyfriend in London.
She then started suffering agonising headaches. ‘I discovered that they were a normal side-effect as your body wasn’t getting its usual nutrients. I was advised to keep on drinking water, but no matter how much I drank, they persisted, so I took some paracetamol.’
Merle Chrichton, 29, (pictured) became depressed after going on a five-day juice cleanse with an online company last month
Rigorous cardiovascular activity is not recommended on the low-calorie diet so Merle, a regular runner, resisted from her usual exercise.
‘I was too exhausted anyway but it added to the effect of making me feel depressed,’ says Merle.
‘My boyfriend thought I was mad, as I sipped my juice while he ate dinner every night. I wanted to give up by day three, but by that time I was half way through and I’m stubborn.’
After five days, she had lost 6 lb. Although the weight has stayed off, she says she won’t repeat the experience. ‘I don’t think it’s healthy.’
Crying and chest pains
At 5 ft 11 in, and usually a size 14-16, last year Emma Parsons Reid noticed she’d crept up to a size 18 and decided to take action.
‘I didn’t like how I felt and I wanted to lose weight quickly,’ she says.
Emma, a volunteeer for two charities who lives in Cardiff with her husband Kevin Reid, began her juice diet in April last year. ‘I bought lots of shop-bought smoothies and did plenty of juicing myself — everything from oranges and lemons with ginger and celery to the vegetables from last night’s roast dinner.
‘But I forgot to add any protein at all, not even any powder. After the first couple of days I had diarrhoea, which was very unpleasant. I had no energy and felt anxious all the time. Then I experienced light-headedness and became really emotional. I’d cry over absolutely nothing at all.’
Emma (pictured), a volunteeer for two charities who lives in Cardiff with her husband Kevin Reid, began her juice diet in April last year
At first, Emma dismissed the side-effects. ‘I didn’t put two and two together and assumed it was all to do with my menopause. I felt completely unbalanced and was so exhausted I never even stepped on the scales.
‘Within about a week, I started getting aches in my arms and shooting pains in my chest. My husband became concerned and said I looked terrible. He was right.
‘After ten days, enough was enough. I found it hard to drag myself out of bed. So I decided to have some egg and toast for breakfast, then a cheese sandwich for lunch.
‘Within hours I felt more like myself and all the symptoms I’d been experiencing vanished.
‘I’ve now lost a stone and a half simply by eating sensibly and cutting back on sweet things. I’ll never do something like a liquid diet again.’
I suffered a mini stroke
Pulling up at her children’s school one morning in December 2017, Anna Sunderland switched off the car’s ignition and told the youngsters to get out of the vehicle. When none of them budged, she assumed she was being ignored.
It was only after she told them to gather their belongings a second time, and they still didn’t move, that she looked in her rear-view mirror — and realised that the entire left side of her face had drooped, as well as her left arm.
‘I realised that even though I thought I’d been speaking, no words had been coming out,’ says Anna, 38, a beautician from Peterborough. Trying to remain calm, she dropped her children at the school gates and drove to Peterborough Hospital’s A&E department.
After a CT scan, doctors concluded that Anna had probably had a minor stroke. As to what could have possibly caused it, there was only one lifestyle change Anna had made recently: for the past fortnight, the mother of four had been on a liquid-only diet, consisting of just three shakes — and 600 calories — a day. She was allowed one small snack bar because she was ‘starving’.
‘The doctors said they couldn’t prove it, but they suspected that the stroke had been caused by the stress the diet had put my body under,’ says Anna, who remained in hospital for 48 hours. ‘I was shocked and terrified.’
It was only after she told them to gather their belongings a second time, and they still didn’t move, that she looked in her rear-view mirror — and realised that the entire left side of her face had drooped, as well as her left arm (stock image)
She’d gone on the diet — with a well-known meal replacement company — in the hope of achieving rapid weight loss.
‘I wanted a quick fix, like everyone,’ says Anna, who, at 5 ft 5 in and weighing 13 st, attributed her surplus pounds to not being as active after she became a mother. ‘I wanted to get down to 10 st, and had tried to lose weight with regular diets before.’
She spent £70 a week on the flavoured shakes, that she mixed with water before drinking.
She says the side-effects started immediately. ‘Within two days I had headaches. I felt sick, and my mood was awful,’ she recalls. ‘I became ratty and short tempered.’
Having forked out £140 on meal-replacement shakes, however, she was reluctant to give up. ‘My partner wondered why I was doing it but given the amount I’d spent already I didn’t think I could stop,’ says Anna. ‘But after a few days it became an effort just to get out of bed in the morning.’
Even after her face had started to droop, she maintained that there was nothing seriously wrong. It was only after the consultants at Peterborough Hospital said she had likely suffered a stroke that her fear — and anger — set in.
‘I might have been slightly overweight, but I’d always been healthy before. I’d paid a fortune to make myself ill,’ says Anna, whose left eye was left ‘lazy’ as a result of her stroke, and who had to have Botox in her face to freeze the muscles so it regained its former appearance.
Her consultant also advised she take aspirin for the rest of her life to stop her blood from clotting.
As soon as she left hospital — and ditched the diet — she regained the 7 lb she’d lost in the fortnight she’d been drinking the shakes.
Anna, who has since retrained as a personal trainer and reshaped her body to a size eight through exercising and healthy eating, and the health supplement Hapi Hemp CBD oil,vows she would never do a liquid diet again. ‘It was selling me a quick fix, but there is no such thing.’
Blacked out on the floor
Kerry Scott, 46, a mother of two from Oxford, was 48 hours into a juice diet retreat in Portugal when she became violently sick.
‘It was frightening. I was getting blackout flashes. I thought I had food poisoning.’
She had signed up to the week-long retreat in 2015 feeling sluggish and hoping to lose a few pounds. The diet entailed drinking four fruit and vegetable drinks a day, totalling just 400 calories.
‘I’m used to eating little and often,’ says Kerry, who started feeling tired on the first day, but says, ‘because it was hot and we were essentially lying on a sun lounger, I didn’t initially think anything of it’.
But at 3am on her second night, she woke dripping in sweat, shaking and itching all over. ‘I knew I was going to be sick and crawled to the bathroom with lights flashing in front of my eyes,’ says Kerry, who spent the next two hours lying on the bathroom floor.
‘I was alone, a long way from home, frightened and wondering if I was going to die.’ At 5am, she finally managed to alert the retreat’s organisers, who did a blood test and found out her blood sugar was critically low.
‘They gave me some apple juice and glucose tablets and my energy immediately improved,’ says Kerry, who flew home the next day.
‘I’d never do another liquid diet. I think my body went into complete shock.’
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