| Hair Loss

SOME ILL-ADVISED SHORT-TERM DIETS CAN ACTUALLY CAUSE HAIR LOSS, BUT DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN’T LOSE WEIGHT QUICKLY AND INTELLIGENTLY.

The sales success of GlaxoSmithKlein’s fat-blocking Alli diet pills two years after their over-the-counter release is a good indicator of a widespread phenomenon: there is a hunger for a magic pill to reduce unwanted body weight. But Alli, along with bariatric surgery and other, newer weight loss strategies still come with work: Alli users cannot take in more than 15 grams of fat in a meal, else they risk a nasty incontinence problem. Surgical approaches to reducing stomach volume – an extreme measure that permanently restricts food intake – can result in nausea, vomiting, dehydration and cold intolerance.

According to The West Penn Bariatric Surgery Center (Pittsburgh, PA), about half of women who have undergone gastric bypass surgery experience transient hair thinning, two to ten months after the procedure, because of inadequate intake of protein, zinc and biotin.

Even worse, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has officially warned consumers to not use the Canadian-made supplement Hydroxycut, nine million packages of which were sold in 2008. The agency cites reports of liver damage from the product, including the death of a 19-year-old male.

So, the magic pills and procedures involve tradeoffs. For anyone facing unwanted hair loss, perhaps a more natural approach is in order. Alli is commonly used for short-term, moderate weight loss – for example, to lose ten pounds for a wedding, school reunion or to get ready for a beach vacation. And such events are terrific motivators, providing a concrete deadline that kick starts new habits.

I suggest that those occasions be a first step toward greater, longer-term accomplishments. Allow a current weight loss motivator lead to better lifelong habits that will benefit you more every day.

The math of body weight

Body weight largely follows the laws of thermodynamics: energy in must be expended out, or else it is stored as body fat (adipose tissue, to be technical). This was very important through the history of mankind, predating agriculture and hamburger drive-thrus, when the next meal was never guaranteed.

Obviously we live in a different era. College freshmen and women quite typically gain 15 pounds because their lifestyle habits (food, activity) are abruptly unrestrained by parental authority – so much so that the sports medicine department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) issued an advisory to students on how to approach this problem in very technical terms.
MIT’s Weight Management Strategies offers the following data points:

  • 3500 excess calories = one pound of body fat.
  • Decrease daily caloric intake by 500 calories = One pound of fat is lost every seven days.
  • Increase physical activity output by 200 calories per day = 1400 calories less per seven days, or a bit less than ½ pound lost per week.
  • Increase activities by 200 calories/day and reduce intake by 500 calories/day = 4900 calories reduced per week, for a fat loss of about 1.4 pounds per week
  • Recommendation: restrict weight loss to two pounds per week.

Unfortunately, it’s really not as simple as this. In extreme cases, some individuals will reduce caloric intake by a much greater amount and experience significant, initial weight loss. But that reduction can lead to symptoms of malnutrition affecting hair, skin and overall energy levels.

With less energy, such persons will exercise less, his or her metabolism will decline, and when they resume a more normal diet they often gain more weight than they lost – sometimes referred to the yo-yo effect.

Sensible approaches to weight loss work best

The MIT numbers are a good guide, but as all math whizzes know it’s important to start with good data and adhere to a measured and controlled plan. That means following these steps:

  • Establish your baseline with a food diary: Write down everything you eat – everything, no cheating – for a week. Then consult product labels or calorie-count directories (try this online calculator, or purchase  The Complete Book of Food Counts). This step alone is so enlightening for most people that meaningful changes flow naturally.
  • Identify substitutions for the most egregiously caloric foods. Just keep in mind the calories in nuts, fish and fruit are far more beneficial than those in your morning exotic sweet-creamy coffees (450 calories for some). Quality matters.
  • Add a physical activity. It can be something as simple as walking further, or taking up new hobbies that require physical work (furniture refinishing, gardening, washing your car by hand, doing housework or even playing a musical instrument every day). Of course, a very active exercise program can go further, as illustrated by the calculator on this website.

The one factor that makes all diets work in the short run is simply to manage and reduce caloric storage – the law of thermodynamics, plain and simple. But what makes a lifestyle program (which is more than a diet) work is approaching it sensibly, holistically and with a sense of gain, not deprivation.