On our individual journeys for improving health, we are overcome with a barrage of claims for diets that promise to help us to “lose weight, decrease inflammation, ease digestion, nourish your microbiome, relieve arthritis, promote natural excretion of toxins, and slow aging!” Sounds terrific, right? But how can you tell the difference between a valid claim and a timewaster when it comes to a diet?
If a diet gains wide popularity but contains unusual combinations of foods or eating sequences, it may be referred to as a fad diet. Like other types of fads, these diets will typically trend in media coverage, marketing ads, and talk around the water cooler. The fad eventually fades out of style once more people grow to understand the diet is not sustainable for long.
To spot a fad diet, look for characteristic buzz
A fad diet can be identified by several features, including:
- Strict menus and limited food combinations
- The promise of fast results, particularly for weight loss
- Broad claims to improve health with little or no supporting research
Consider the source
If you are trying to figure out if a certain diet has proven successful, you can nearly always find a source that tells you a resounding “yes.” Websites will show before and after photos, share inspiring stories from those who follow the rules of the diet and refer to endorsements from professionals like doctors, physical trainers, or scholars.
The key to determining if these claims are true will often lie in the source of the information. Be wary of the following sources of nutrition counseling:
- Paid advertisements that offer a plan or kit for sale at the end of the diet plan explanation.
- A magazine, lifestyle blog, or professional association that publishes based on opinion or sponsored content. Conflicts of interest can be difficult to spot, but these articles often link to sites where products relating to the diet may be purchased or the author uses convincing language and first-person accounts to demonstrate bias in the piece.
- Featured diets on entertainment shows or media streams. After all, the purpose is to entertain rather than to inform.
- Celebrity endorsements. A person with wide admiration can be a convincing diet advocate, but these voices are often paid and untrustworthy. Social media and celebrity endorsements have been found to be major influencers of young people choosing fad diets.
Not every health problem can be resolved with diet
It is important to note that while certain medical conditions require specific diet restrictions, there are many health problems that are not safely treatable with diet alone. It can be dangerous to believe a certain diet will cure a medical condition. Always discuss your new diet plan with a healthcare provider or registered dietician (RD), so that they can inform you on recommendations, as well as go over any additional monitoring or treatment you may require beyond your dietary approach.
By the same token, diet is an extremely difficult subject to study scientifically. Response to diets appears to be influenced by a complex interaction of genetics, behavior, and environment. Additionally, diet plan results are often best collected over the long term. This is why any blanket statements about food choices should always be questioned. For example, there is no proof that certain combinations of food consistently lead to weight gain or to weight loss.
What are the risks of choosing a diet?
The risks of restricting certain foods or limiting eating patterns depend on the features of the diet. Juice cleanses, for example, will contain loads of sugar without fiber, protein, or certain key nutrients. Vegan diets eliminate several major food groups, putting new dieters at risk for deficiencies in iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, and vitamins D or B12. Vegans and vegetarians are also at risk for substituting food choices for more processed food, which can lead to extra calorie intake. Another popular diet trend includes fasting or time-restricted eating, which puts dieters at risk for binging unhealthy foods during non-fasting hours, along with experiencing volatile blood sugars.
Is it right for you?
With any proposed new diet plan, one helpful test is asking: “Can I eat this way for the rest of my life?” While it is sometimes challenging to make healthy food choices, fad diets often take these challenges to the extreme. Diets with many restrictions will ultimately prove impossible to follow, largely because our food choices are integral to our socialization with family, friends, and colleagues. If you find yourself feeling motivated to make a major change in your eating habits, you can increase your likelihood of success by making the diet plan a reasonable one to follow in the long term.
The remedy to the Fad Diet
Many people turn to fad diets in times of desperation. Most commonly this is done in frustration with extra weight. It’s quite common that strict diets will help boost dramatic weight loss, but up to 80% of dieters regain a significant amount of weight over time. This is why excess body weight is best addressed as a chronic disease, requiring ongoing maintenance on diet and other therapies to gain healthy years of life.
The most sustainable and nutritious diet plans involve changing eating habits in a step-wise fashion, in combination with physical exercise. Some people thrive with their new diet when they are given a prescriptive plan to guide their journey from a registered dietician, primary care provider, physical therapist, or medical weight-loss specialist. If you are unsure whether you fall into this category, it may be beneficial to keep a food diary to track your success and gain perspective on your eating patterns. Working alongside a professional can be particularly important if you have certain conditions like arthritis, eating disorder, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease.
Essentially, most experts conclude that the diet which supports an optimally functioning body includes three simple features: eating real food, eating appropriate proportions, and eating mostly plant-based food. In time, adopting this eating pattern can help you be more fit.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Staying Away from Fad Diets,” March 18, 2019.
Better Health Channel, “Weight loss and fad diets.”
Cleveland Clinic, “The Psychology of Eating,” August 24, 2020.
D.L. Katz and S. Meller, “Can We Say What Diet Is Best for Health?,” Annual Review of Public Health 35, (2014): 83-103.
Daniel Engber, “Unexpected Clues Emerge About Why Diets Fail,” Scientific American, January 13, 2020.
Erin Fothergill, Juen Guo, et al., “Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after ‘The Biggest Loser’ competition,” Obesity, May 2, 2016.
Michael Schwartz, Randy Seeley, “Obesity Pathogenesis: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement,” Oxford Academic, June 26, 2017.
Rush, “The Skinny on 7 Diet Trends.”
Sky Roberts, “5 Fad Diets and the Foods You Aren’t Getting Enough Of,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, October 24, 2018.
U.S. Department of Agriculture