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Celebrity diets: fad or fab?

Whether it's eating charcoal or avoiding sugar, do unusual diets that artistes follow really work? We ask experts

Celebrities can do just about anything to stay in shape. Earlier this year, American TV series Mad Men actor January Jones revealed that she ate her own dehydrated placenta in the form of capsules, to fight depression and fatigue. Ashton Kutcher only ate fruits while making the 2013 film, Jobs.

We look at some weird diets that artistes reportedly follow to stay in shape or prepare for a role, and ask experts whether they are actually beneficial.

The followers: Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop.com called the charcoal lemonade one of the “best juice cleanses" around.

What it involves: As a little black pill or ground into a vegetable juice, activated charcoal detox is the “it" thing in celebrity circles. It’s food-grade carbon made with regular charcoal; it is heated with gas to form pores which supposedly trap chemicals. The charcoal acts like a sponge in the digestive tract. It is supposed to cure everything from a hangover to skin dullness, low energy levels and flatulence.

Does it work? “Activated charcoal is a very powerful agent used to absorb all poisons and chemicals from the body," says Shikha Sharma, founder of health management centre Nutri-Health Systems Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi. It’s used in the hospital emergency room, or for people with health problems like arthritis or toxin-related disorders. “To drink it once a month is okay for weight loss or skin improvement, but don’t go too frequent on it, since it can result in vitamin and mineral deficiency," she says. Frequent use also decreases the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and medications.

Gluten-free diet

The followers: Paltrow and Miley Cyrus.

What it involves: All gluten sources like wheat, rye, barley and oats are removed from the diet. Recommended by doctors for those allergic or intolerant to wheat, the diet is now part of lifestyle dieting too.

Does it work? A study published in the Journal Of The Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics in 2012, which analysed the diet, did not recommend it as a means to eat healthier or to lose weight. “Though we consume much more wheat and products with gluten, like cakes and biscuits, we still need gluten in our daily diet," says Madhuri Ruia, a Mint columnist and fitness professional who heads Integym in Mumbai. She recommends that if you are not allergic to gluten, aim to lower gluten intake rather than cutting it out completely.

The Breatharian diet

The followers: Madonna and Michelle Pfeiffer.

What it involves: This diet is all about living without food. Some dieters smell food instead of eating it, while some say they can live on sunlight and air.

Does it work? “This is pure starvation. Normal people cannot do a diet supposedly done by Himalayan yogis," says Sharma. Ruia laughs at the very idea. “Are you a plant? Is your skin green or purple? Can you photosynthesize sunlight and convert it into nutrients? If not, this is not for you."

The followers: Eva Longoria, Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin.

What it involves: It eliminates all types of sugar from the diet, even limiting the intake of natural sugar sources from fruits and vegetables, like peas, carrots and sweet potatoes.

Does it work? Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidelines, recommending that the daily intake of free sugar be limited to less than 10% of the total energy intake. “We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay," said Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s department of nutrition for health and development, in a press release. But their definition of free sugar is foods where sugar is added by manufacturers, the cook or the consumer (including sauces, granola, cereals, flavoured curd, drinks, energy bars).

Follow it, but do include the natural sugars. “Our body requires glucose for everyday function, from breathing to the blinking of our eyes, which we get from natural sources of sugar like fruits and vegetables," says Ruia, agreeing there’s some merit in the diet. “Added or refined sugar is completely toxic for the body and should be avoided," she adds.

The Paleo diet

The followers: Cyrus and Matthew McConaughey.

What it involves: Founded by Loren Cordain, the founder of the Paleo Movement, this involves following the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Also called the Caveman diet, “it will optimize your health, minimize your risk of chronic disease and you’ll lose weight", says Cordain’s website. The diet encourages a high intake of protein and fibre with leaner meats. It forbids all kinds of processed, refined foods or trans fat. Only foods presumed to be available to the Neanderthals are allowed, and all “modern" foods, like dairy products, grains, sugar, legumes, processed oil, salt and alcohol or coffee, are excluded.

Does it work? “It does have a bit of science to it," says Ruia. She believes that since we all have hunters and gatherers as ancestors, this combination of protein and vegetables actually makes sense. “The diet encourages nuts and seeds, which have a good cholesterol profile," she says, adding: “But stay away from too much protein or carbohydrates as we’re not as active as our ancestors were."

The followers: Victoria Beckham, who got back into her size-zero clothes post pregnancy.

What it involves: You’re allowed only five handfuls of protein-rich foods a day. In every meal, the meat you consume should be equal to the thickness and size of your palm. In each meal, you can take two handfuls of carbohydrates separately, through foods like mushroom, radish, broccoli, cabbage, celery and cauliflower.

Does it work? Sharma dismisses this diet: “This is nothing but a fad diet and will lead to deficiencies."

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