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Dietary expert: Be careful of ‘quick fix’ supplements and diets

Stimulants and other ingredients in weight-loss supplements can potentially be dangerous to human health. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes) Stimulants and other ingredients in weight-loss supplements can potentially be dangerous to human health. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes)

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Nutrition | Operation Live Well

A few years ago, Army Capt. Stephen Krauss faced a dieting dilemma. The stress of finishing up his Ph.D., along with the inactivity brought on by school work, led him to become overweight, by 70 pounds, in fact. And he wanted to join the military.

“I was fat,” said the now-assistant professor in the Department of Military and Emergency Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). “The recruiter told me, very justifiably, that I was wasting his time.”

Krauss knew he had to take off the weight quickly to make the cutoff date as a candidate for his specialty - research psychology. And then the recruiter surprised him again: instead of the six months he thought he would have to make the cutoff, he had only six weeks to take off the weight. While they were tempting, dietary supplements weren’t an option. “I did not want to do anything that would jeopardize my recruitment.”

Instead, Krauss found a diet that allowed him to eat many of the things he liked, but just in smaller portions, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables helped him feel filled up. While it was hard, he did make the weight just four days before the deadline, which enabled him to join the Army.

His dilemma isn’t uncommon for military members, retirees and their families. Dr. Patricia Deuster, a professor in the Department of Military and Emergency Medicine and director of USU’s Consortium for Health and Military Performance, a Defense Center of Excellence, said 50 to 60 percent of military personnel are overweight, and more than 10 percent turn to supplements to shed the pounds.

“I’m very concerned about [the use of these supplements],” said Deuster. “A number of weight loss supplements contain prescription drugs and other combinations of ingredients that are potentially harmful. The consumer cannot tell which ones are harmful.”

In fact, Deuster said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been targeting weight loss supplements for closer scrutiny. Such products should be checked carefully for ingredients including stimulants, such as caffeine, bitter orange and yohimbe. “If the dietary supplement has three or four stimulants, we have no idea how they interact. Certain combinations can be toxic to the heart, so there’s a lot of concern about this.”

Deuster said it’s tough for the average consumer to look at a label and truly understand how certain combinations of ingredients could be harmful. She recommends visiting the USU Human Performance Resource Center’s Operation Supplement Safety website and the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements website to learn more about potentially harmful ingredients in these products. Deuster supports Krauss’ method of watching what you eat and getting more exercise when it comes to weight loss.

“There’s no quick fix,” said Deuster. “It really comes down to consuming less and moving more. Have a conversation instead of eating. It’s hard to talk when you’re eating.”

For Krauss, eating right and exercising more also helped his self-confidence, incredibly important for someone in the military, and ensured he would be a fit example of a service member.

“When I go into meetings, already being one of the lowest-ranking officers in the room, I can’t be borderline on weight standards,” said Krauss. “I have to look professional. Without a doubt, I now look like a soldier.”

Krauss added people need to look at weight loss as a change in lifestyle, something they have to continue long after any unwanted pounds are shed. He said you can still treat yourself to calorie luxuries every once in a while. But supplements shouldn’t be part of that long-term plan.

“Supplements can have dangerous side effects,” said Krauss. “You can’t just take a miracle drug and lose 20 pounds. You have to change your lifestyle, or eventually you’ll be right back where you started.”

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