SCMP Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Warnings issued to dieters after Web sites panned


SAR dieters are being warned not to take advice from Internet weight-loss centres, after an international study found many give shoddy - and in some cases dangerous - advice.
Several online diet "experts" failed to tell a dangerously obese man that his weight was threatening his health, and others prescribed a low-calorie diet to a woman bordering on anorexia.
"Dieting is a serious business but judging by the services we looked at, it's clearly not being taken seriously by many diet sites," said a spokesman for the British Consumers' Association, which examined 10 weight-loss Web sites, most based in the United States.
"We've found that some companies see the 'www' tag as a green light to offer poor and sometimes dangerous advice."
The association found 36 Web sites offering weight-loss programmes and diet supplements, and examined 10 to assess the quality of advice given and value for money. Joining up to the sites cost between $80 and $460.
Seven of the 10 failed the association's test.
To test the sites, two fictitious dieters were signed up. Molly, 22, was an office worker whose weight was at the low end of the healthy scale. She exercised for three hours a day and had problems with food, indicating she was anorexic.
Jack was a 42-year-old taxi driver who, at 1.82m tall and weighing 133kg, was obese. He suffered from headaches and swollen ankles, and had a family history of diabetes.
Over the testing period, Molly lost more than 13kg, but only one site told her she had lost too much weight. One even told her to exercise more. Jack was told to lose weight but often was not told how serious a problem he had or given any advice about how to change his diet.
The association said Molly should have been reassured that she did not need to lose any weight, and Jack should have been told his health was at risk because of his weight, and to see a doctor to have his blood pressure, blood sugar and cardio-vascular system checked out.
Dr Susan Liu Sau-han, former president of the Hong Kong Nutrition Association, said Hong Kong people were increasingly going on fad diets and were putting their health, and sometimes their lives, in danger.
"They hear through the media and other sources about different diets and they try them - vegetable soup diets or low-protein diets or high-protein or only protein, you name it," she said.
"But there are lots of health risks involved in going on a diet without consulting a doctor because individuals can have different health problems.
Dr Liu said she believed that a recent surge in the number of people in their 30s who died suddenly of heart attacks could be linked to inappropriate efforts to lose weight. She said people were slashing their food intake and taking a lot of exercise - often in the summer heat - and their hearts were overworked and could not cope.
Dr Liu said anyone considering taking diet advice over the Internet should ensure they also consulted a doctor.
"If they're getting basic advice about a balanced diet and proper eating habits that's okay, but I think it's important that they consult a doctor because these diet plans are probably for a 'normal' person, but if they have a family history of diabetes or hypoglycaemia they could have serious problems," she said.