It's based on Third World rations and has been called 'organised starvation'. So how safe is the LighterLife diet?
By Andrea Thompson
Last updated at 12:14 AM on 24th May 2009
source: It's based on Third World rations and has been called 'organised starvation'. So how safe is the LighterLife diet? | Mail Online
She was the larger-than-life celebrity wife who always wore a smile for the cameras, but had to suffer snide comments about her weight. Last week, those comments turned to purrs of admiration when Jackie Llewelyn-Bowen outshone her husband - flamboyant TV presenter Laurence - on the red carpet with her svelte new figure.
The 44-year-old had lost an incredible five stone. Her secret? LighterLife, the cult diet with an estimated 15,000 followers that is sweeping the country and helping obese, serial dieters shed vast amounts of weight with dramatic speed.
Slimline: A svelte Jackie Llewelyn-Bowen with Laurence last week
With the NHS struggling to cope with a range of weight-related conditions from diabetes to high blood pressure and heart disease, LighterLife has been hailed as a lifeline by some doctors who see it as an alternative to costly weight loss (bariatric) operations such as gastric bands.
But others believe it is dangerous - and that the punishing 530-calorie-a-day regime is little more than organised starvation.
One thing that no one is in doubt about is that LighterLife gets results. The story of how the diet began and the two British women behind it is just as remarkable.
Since it was founded in 1996, the LighterLife diet has helped more than 100,000 people successfully lose weight and has an annual turnover of £18million.
The women behind the hottest dieting phenomenon in decades - Bar Hewlett, 60, and Jackie Cox, 57 - had good reason to create such a diet.
Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday, Bar explains how LighterLife began. 'Jackie and I were friends,' she says. 'We met 20 years ago. I had degrees in science and engineering and Jackie had degrees in psychology and counselling.
'Both of us were six stone overweight. We were dieting experts - and failures. We started talking about setting up a diet that gave us what we wanted - extreme weight loss that stayed off.
'We discovered a project at Addenbrooke's hospital, in Cambridge, where scientists were researching emergency food packs for disaster areas. These contained the minimum calories a person would need to keep them alive with all the vitamins and minerals needed to stay healthy, combined with a set level of protein.
'We thought we could use that for dieters. If that's all you needed to survive, then that's what dieters who needed to lose weight should be eating. We took the emergency food pack, looked at the nutritional content, chose flavours and checked Government advice on what was safe.'
After eight years in development, and raising the funds themselves, they found a factory to make up the packs 'and began putting people on the diets'.
The key, according to Bar, was creating the counselling programmes. 'We all know what we have to do to lose weight, it's about working out why we don't do it. Jackie and I lost six stone and have kept it off.'
One other enthusiast is consultant gynaecologist and surgeon Liz Adams, a 43-year-old mother of two who lives in the Wirral, Liverpool. She was staggered when she saw one of her usually overweight patients who had dropped an impressive three stone in three months, reducing her blood pressure and cholesterol in the process.
Laurence and Jackie Llewelyn-Bowen in 2006
Liz, who had struggled with her own weight for six years, was fascinated by the woman's success on the LighterLife diet. As a regular polo player and horse-rider, she had got back down to her normal weight after the birth of her first child Jamie, now six, but was unable to shift the three-and-a- half stone she'd gained in her second pregnancy with her daughter Alexandra, now two.
At 14 stone, Liz says she was constantly tired and lethargic.
'I'd always prided myself on being fit and healthy so I was desperate to return to my pre-pregnancy weight of ten-and-a-half stone,' she says.
'I'd tried the cabbage soup diet, Atkins, low-fat diets - all without success. As a medical professional, I wanted something that was scientifically proven and effective, but also safe and healthy.'
Liz decided to try the diet in January 2008. By the end of March she had shed three-and-a-half stone, taking her down from a size 16 to a ten.
More than a year later, she has maintained her target weight of ten-and-a-half stone.
'I still functioned as a surgeon and had no problem getting up early and working long, strenuous days,' she says, and now wholeheartedly recommends the diet to her overweight patients.
The UK is in the midst of an obesity epidemic with two thirds of adults classed as overweight.
More than 30,000 deaths a year in England are caused by obesity, with obesity-related deaths second only to smoking. A Government report suggests that these figures will rise to almost nine in ten adults and two-thirds of children by 2050.
But LighterLife is not a diet to be taken on half-heartedly. To be eligible, you must have a BMI of 25 or above - which is classed as being overweight - be over 16 years of age, and have the consent of your GP.
Patients exist on just 530 calories a day - a quarter of the recommended 2,000-calorie intake for women. While gentle exercise such as walking is encouraged, vigorous exercise is not advised because of the low calorific content of the diet.
Priced at £66 a week, the diet package is made up of three meals a day of nutritionally complete soups and shakes. Patients abstain from conventional food for the 100 days of the diet and are encouraged to drink three to four litres of water each day to avoid constipation.
New me: Liz Adams is now a size ten after the diet and, right, the 14st Liz beforehand
Abstention results in ketosis, the process by which your body converts fats into energy (see box below).
The programme is clearly an extreme one and has caused controversy.
In December 2008, a mother of five died after drinking nearly four litres of water in two hours while on the low-calorie plan. Tests showed that Jacqueline Henson, 40, who collapsed, was killed by swelling on the brain - a result of the excessive water consumption.
A coroner ruled her death an accident, but her family blamed the diet. Jacqueline had shed 12lb from her 15 stone frame in her first week and complained of a headache.
The case followed that of Matilda Callaghan, 25, who two years ago died from heart arrhythmia after losing ten stone in six months on the LighterLife plan.
Disturbed heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, occurs when the heart's natural pacemaker develops an abnormal rate or rhythm, the normal blood flow is blocked or another part of the heart takes over as pacemaker. A cardiac pacemaker, drugs or radio frequencies may be used to correct the problem. But in some cases it can be fatal.
Although the coroner recorded an open verdict, leading obesity expert professor John Garrow blamed Matilda's death on her rapid weight loss on LighterLife, which he branded a 'semi-starvation diet', which reduced the lean tissue in her heart.
Dr David Ashton, medical director of the Healthier Weight Centres and one of the country's leading obesity experts, says it is highly dangerous for overweight people to exist on fewer than 600 calories a day.
'Losing weight is a very positive thing, but I would never advise my patients to go below 850 to 1,000 calories a day.'
Dr Ashton says that new research has revealed that Very Low Calorie Diets (VLCDs) such as Lighter-Life, are no more effective than a sensible Low Calorie Diet (LCDs) that allows you to eat between 850 and 1,000 calories a day. The VLCDs also have alarming side effects, including fainting, dizziness, nausea, headaches, thinning hair and insomnia.
'These faddy diets are difficult to maintain, they make you ill, and can be dangerous to your health. With research now showing that they are no more effective than LCDs, people should not be suffering unnecessarily,' he says.
He adds that a recent study looked at two groups of patients with daily energy prescriptions of 458 calories (VLCD) and 800 calories (LCD) respectively.
Over a three-month study both groups of patients lost similar amounts of weight. However, the VLCD group displayed more side effects. The research concluded that the three-month LCD was safer and more cost-effective than the lower calorie alternative.
'Most leading obesity experts are in agreement that while being in ketosis may give you an instant lift in mood, it results in adverse long-term health effects because it inhibits the metabolism of calcium, potentially causing kidney stones and bone thinning,' says Dr Ashton.
'Another harmful effect of ketosis is the reduction of exercise capacity and excessive loss of lean muscle mass which is highly dangerous. The idea is to lose fat and retain lean muscle. If you lose lean muscle you will struggle to maintain your new weight. In more serious cases another effect is the depletion of energy stores in the heart which puts huge strain on it.'
But the team behind LighterLife is adamant that the diet is safe and insists it follows the guidelines of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) which states that VLCDs should be used only for a maximum of 12 weeks under medical supervision and no more.
'Most people who come to us have four stone to lose,' says physiologist Claire Hallam-Spencer, 34, head of medical liaison at Lighter-Life. 'They are seasoned dieters who recognise they need something drastic because they have failed on conventional diets.
'Unlike many diets, LighterLife provides solid medical and psychological support. Before embarking on the diet, you must be assessed by your GP. If you have any medical problems - type 1 diabetes, or mental-health issues, high blood pressure or cardiac problems - you will not be considered.'
The company maintains that the key to the diet's success is its focus on radically altering a person's long-term eating habits by exploring the deep-seated psychological reasons behind why they over-eat - whether for comfort, security, or to combat stress and anxiety in their lives.
Unlike usual diets, clients must sign up for weekly counselling sessions run by trained counsellors using specifically developed techniques from transactional analysis (TA) to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
'When clients reach their desired, healthier weight, they join our ongoing, free weight-maintenance programme which provides diet plans and continued psychological support so they can keep the weight off for good,' says Hallam-Spencer.
For Vanessa Peterkin, 38, a seasoned dieter from London, the counselling at LighterLife was her first opportunity to take an honest look at why she'd been over-eating since childhood.
'I'd been teased about my size and called Porky since school,' says the banker who weighed 14 stone when she signed up for the diet.
'I was insecure and unhappy but ploughed my energy into my work. I'd carved out a good career but inside I felt desperately unhappy. Eating comfort food, such as takeaways and bread, made me feel better.'
But three months on the Lighter-Life diet transformed the way Vanessa viewed food as she dropped to 9½ stone.
'Giving up food made me realise how much my day had revolved around what I ate,' she says. 'The counselling also made me aware of how uncomfortable my weight was making me at work, in a world where being slim and healthy is a sign of self-discipline and success.'
Registered nutritionist Carina Norris, while impressed, is not entirely convinced. 'Research has shown that support from others plays a major role in losing weight, and keeping it off, and to their credit, LighterLife address the motivation behind the way you eat.
'But I'm wary about the safety of VLCDs which can leave you feeling weak, tired and miserable.'
For Shelley Benson, 27, a dental technician from Leeds who dropped from 15 stone to 11½ stone in 13 weeks this year, the diet was surprisingly liberating because of its rigidity.
'It didn't involve having to weigh my portions or calorie count and there were no difficult food choices to make at meal times. I just had my shakes and soups and got on with my day. There was no room for cheating or using excuses to binge,' she says.
'Through counselling I realised how I'd been comfort-eating to mask deep-seated insecurities about how I looked. On the outside I was happy but when I went clothes shopping and looked at myself in the changing-room mirrors, I would burst into tears.'
Demanding regime: LighterLife's diet food packs
Two months on from completing the diet, Shelley is following a sensible low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, although she admits she is still occasionally tempted to binge on bread or chocolate. But she thinks she has psychologically reprogrammed her brain.
'If I have the urge to binge I take a step back and ask myself if I'm genuinely hungry or in a bad mood,' she says. 'Then I remember how good it feels to put on my favourite size 12 dress or go to the gym for a workout - something I'd have been too embarrassed to do when I was overweight. My counselling keeps me on track.'
For Liz Adams, the counselling was also central as she discovered more about her own relationship with food.
'The CBT sessions address your own eating addiction. I had always used food to combat stress or to reward myself. But when I was young I exercised to balance my big appetite. As a stressed professional woman trying to balance work with family I had less time and my use of food became a problem.
'I was eating without being physically hungry. But now I'm better able to spot my triggers and deal with them - I go to the gym, have a bath or meditate rather than eat.
'My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner. My husband is thrilled. He's always taking pictures of me and recently treated me to a new wardrobe of clothes.
'The day I zipped up my first size ten dress, I was close to tears. I feel healthy, young and energetic again. It's given me a new lease of life.'
Ketosis - how the body
burns fat into energy
The key to the LighterLife diet is that
weight is lost when the body goes into
ketosis, a process in which your body
converts fats into energy. The body
normally uses glucose to meet its energy
needs. Glucose comes from the
carbohydrate in your diet.
A healthy, balanced diet provides you with
all the glucose your body needs, so that
ketosis does not take place. However, if
your body does not have enough glucose
- if your diet is low in carbohydrates - it
will begin ketosis to obtain energy from its
stored fats instead.
Prolonged severe ketosis can be
dangerous as it can change the acidity of
blood, which may lead to serious damage
to the liver and kidneys.
For surgeon Liz Adams, left, however,
putting her body into ketosis was
something she felt medically comfortable
'Because I have a medical background I
know how it works. Sending the body into
ketosis with a low-calorie high-protein
diet largely spares your muscles but rids
you of fat.
'I had loads of energy despite eating so
few calories. Once the body goes into
ketosis, it is easy to stay on the diet
because your body stops craving
'When you reintroduce foods during the
six-week maintenance phase, you do so
slowly, starting with very low carbohydrate
foods so you don't get your cravings back
in the same way.'