Unhealthy extreme dieting grips Vietnamese youth

By Quynh Nguyen   February 25, 2023 | 04:07 pm PT
Linh An, who is 1.62 m tall and weighs 49 kg, eats only raw food and refuses to consume any starch, protein, or fat in an effort to drop an additional 4 kg.

The 25-year-old Hanoi girl learned about her eating regimen from a video on a social media account that claimed the method could help her "cleanse the body, improve health, and help lose 2 kg per week, without relying on drugs or rigorous exercise."

In the comments section under the video, which has tens of thousands of likes, some people say they have lost at least one or two kilograms after using the diet plan for 7 days. This gave Linh An hope after many previous strategies.

An always has celery juice and a half an apple for breakfast. She consumes a half-carrot, three okra, some purple cabbage slices, and a half-dragon fruit at lunchtime. She then serves herself pineapple juice, an apple, and a veggie salad for dinner.

An was delighted to see her waist shrink as she lost 1.5 kg the first week. But that’s not enough. An intends to follow the diet for a few more weeks and then begin fasting again.

Do Thao, a 28-year-old from Ho Chi Minh City, has been infatuated with "beautiful, white, and slender" standard.

She obsessively watches videos on social networks about trends celebrating slim figures. After a while, Thao stopped gaining weight, but her skin turned darker, her hair started falling out, and she saw that her body seemed to retain water.

She had had to come up with a new strategy: she had to eliminate all carbohydrates.

Nutritionists estimate that persons like Thao, who is 1.6 m tall and weighs 50 kg, need 1,200 calories per day on average. But social media videos tell her to stick to 300–500 calories per day. Thao weighs each meal prior to eating using a small electronic scale to prevent over-absorption. She thinks that even just a one gram deviation can make her gain weight.

A typical lunch for Do Thao consists of lightly roasted chicken breast, bell peppers, cabbage and lettuce. Photo courtesy of Thao

A typical lunch for Do Thao consists of lightly roasted chicken breast, bell peppers, cabbage and lettuce. Photo courtesy of Thao

Psychologist Nguyen Ngoc Hoang, a member of the Vietnam Psychotherapy Association, says the idea that "being thin is being attractive" has been inspired by media worship of Korean and Chinese celebrities.

In addition to social media, Hoang claims that heavy advertising for cosmetic surgery and body products promotes unrealistic body standards and leads many people to follow severe diets and/or exercise excessively.

According to a VnExpress reporter's survey of TikTok, the hashtags #lose weight (1.2 billion views), #eatclean (1.9 billion views), and keto diet (2.3 billion views) are the most popular diet tags on the platform. Much of the information under these tags supports fasting, offers quick ways to lose belly fat and details extreme weight loss competitions.

Facebook is also filled with groups that discuss weight loss methods. In a private group with nearly 300,000 members, people shared information about herbal teas, weight loss pills, fat-burning candies, fat-burning creams, and natural powders.

Some group members who sell such products promise they are "100% natural, with no side effects, and cause no fatigue".

However, a 2022 survey by Tokyo-based Novo Nordisk Pharma Co., Ltd. showed that people who use diet foods, herbs, or functional foods, have the lowest successful weight loss rates - only 5%. Research also shows that diets, vegetarian diets, or food supplements often do not bring about the desired results.

There are no comprehensive statistics on how many Vietnamese people use extreme weight loss techniques right now, but in a survey conducted by VnExpress on 200 readers last November, 79% said they consistently exercised every day to lose weight, 19% said they used food diets they followed on social media (fasting, dieting, raw food, etc.), and 2% tried food supplements or underwent plastic surgery.

Implementing a food diet when one is overweight or obese may be beneficial, according to Dr. Le Thi Hai, former director of the Center for Nutrition at the National Institute of Nutrition, but medical advice is required.

According to experts, many people are trying to lose weight quickly by dieting, eating raw food, eating only green vegetables, or drinking only water. These methods can help reduce body weight by a few kilograms but may lead to other problems such as rapid heartbeat, overworked liver, muscle loss, and osteoporosis.

Hospitalizations due to rapid weight loss have become more frequently recently.

A 30-year-old Hanoi woman lost three kilograms in February 2023 after eating weight-loss candies for a week, but she also developed red skin, acne on her face, felt dizzy from exhaustion, and needed hospitalization for treatment.

After taking weight reduction tea for 5 days, a 35-year-old female patient was admitted to the hospital in March 2022 with fatigue and dizziness.

Since butting back on protein, fat and carbohydrates, Linh An often feels fatigued, experiences migraines, shortness of breath when climbing stairs, has menstrual problems, lacks focus at work, and occasionally faints for no apparent reason.

However, she insists these symptoms are normal. "I can't stop tormenting myself if I can't lose weight," Linh says.

For Do Thao, extreme dieting may not only be harming her health, it’s also made her socially withdrawn. She’s stopped hanging out with friends and she now skips all her company’s corporate events.

"I'm determined not to eat such food [served at social gatherings] because I don't know how many calories, fat and sugar are used in such processed foods," she says.

In addition meals with enough nutrition, Huyen Trang often snacks on fruit to have more energy before exercising. Photo courtesy of Trang

In addition meals with enough nutrition, Huyen Trang often snacks on fruit to have more energy before exercising. Photo courtesy of Trang

Huyen Trang, a 22 year-old from Nghe An, was 70kg when she almost died trying to "drink water for 24-72 hours instead of eating." After that incident, she gradually learned how to eat and exercise in a healthier way.

At her doctor’s suggestion, she now uses a scientific food diet with a balance of nutrients including protein, vegetables, fruits, and starch. She rarely eats sweets or fried food, instead preferring foods heavy in nuts and olive oil instead. She visits the gym once a week to reduce body fat and increase muscle.

She says these new methods have helped her weight, albeit in a slower manner than when she used supplements or fasted.
"However, I feel more healthy and can focus better at work rather than feeling tired and hungry like before," she says.

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