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Diet vegetable destroys lungs

HEALTH MATTERS The consumption of sauropus androgynous, which has proved popular in Taiwan for people as a weight-loss product in recent years, has been linked with irreparable lung damage; a number of women have died from its effects

By Erin Prelypchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

An "all-natural" weight loss fad which began five years ago in Taiwan can cause permanent -- and in some cases fatal -- lung damage, doctors and researchers said yesterday.

Sauropus androgynous, known here in Taiwan as "the diet vegetable" (減肥菜), gained popularity in 1993 and 1994 as an easy, "natural" weight-loss method: one drank an extract of the leafy vegetable with fruit juice several times a day and lost weight quickly. It was also touted as a cure for high blood pressure and constipation.

In medical circles, however, it quickly became known as a leading cause of obstructive lung disease.

Patients complaining of a dry cough, shortness of breath and gradual respiratory failure after eating sauropus began to surface in 1995 -- about two years after the vegetable was first imported from Southeast Asia -- according to medical journal reports. At the peak of the trend between July and November 1995, 104 patients were treated at Taichung Veterans' General Hospital, according to the China Medical Journal.

A total of 278 cases of lung failure resulting from sauropus have been reported to date at the Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung veterans' general hospitals, chest surgeon Fu Chen-chung (符振中) said.

Patients who consumed high levels of the vegetable were worst affected, especially those consuming the plant in the form of its uncooked extract, according to research conducted at Taipei Veterans' General Hospital.

All were healthy non-smokers, and all were women in their twenties and thirties, Fu said.

Women were primarily affected as they tend to diet and use weight-loss products more often than men, he said.

In most cases the damage was long-term. Of the 55 candidates for lung transplants in the last two years, 15 percent have been women who took sauropus, said Tsai Wen-chin (蔡文欽), director of the Bureau of National Health Insurance's medical review task force.

Facts about sauropus androgynous:

* Also known as diet vegetable (減肥菜), sweet leaf bush, chekkurmensis, chekup manis, changkok manis or katuk

* Leafy green perennial vegetable

* Cultivated in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, southwest China and Vietnam

* Eaten raw, cooked, as a juice extract or added to a variety of dishes

* Has been linked to obstructive lung disease when taken in massive amounts

Of the four who were given transplants, two have died, he said. Four are still awaiting donors.

According to the China Medical Journal and the American College of Chest Physicians, sauropus contains high amounts of the alkaloid papaverine, thought to cause the lung problems which affect primarily the bronchioles.

Papaverine, which relaxes the blood vessels, is used as a prescription drug for a variety of ailments.

The reasons why sauropus affects the lungs and not other major systems is still a mystery, said Fu, who is also deputy director of the Cheng Hsin Medical Center in Taipei.

Fu said the sauropus patients he had seen "were all very healthy. It's only because they wanted so badly to be thin that they did irreparable damage to their lungs."

Most of the patients he had seen now have chronic lung problems which will require life-long treatment.

Ironically, sauropus is also high in a wide variety of vitamins.

Only in Taiwan has the vegetable been popular as a diet method. Elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia, it is prized for its taste and high nutritional value when added to salads, stir-fry dishes, soups and casseroles.

Using sauropus as a weight-loss product is not worth the potential costs, Fu said.

The average amount of weight lost by lung patients who had drunk the extract regularly for a month was three kilograms, he said.

"It's not difficult to lose this amount of weight with exercise and a sensible diet," he said.

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