Fad diets promise miracle results, but can they really deliver? Learn the telltale signs of a fad diet and why the “latest diet craze” could be bad for you.
Open up a magazine, turn on the television or browse the Internet and it’s hard to avoid stumbling across the next “miracle diet”. From the Master Cleanse to Atkins to South Beach to the Cabbage Soup Diet, there are literally hundreds of popular fad diets competing for your attention (and often dollars.)
Some fad diets, like the Grapefruit Diet, are attractive to dieters because of their simplicity: Drink grapefruit juice with your meals and watch the fat burn away. Others, like Atkins, The Zone Diet or South Beach, are more complicated — requiring you to buy a book and spend hours memorizing lists of what you can and can’t eat on the diet.
But do fad diets work? And if they do, at what cost to your health (and taste buds?)
Fad Diet Statistics: How Prevalent Is It?
The statistics around fad dieting are revealing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that at any given time two-thirds of all American adults are on a diet to either lose weight or prevent weight gain. Of those, 29 percent are men and 44 percent women. Yet only 5 percent of these dieters will be successful at keeping the weight that they lost off.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that each day Americans spend an average of $109 million on dieting or diet related products, including tapes, videos, supplements, books, foods, and medications – or over $34 billion a year.
Yet, for all of the money spent on diets and diet products, another set of statistics shows Americans overall aren’t losing weight. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, overweight and obesity has reached epidemic levels, afflicting 6 out of every 10 adults, and is the second leading cause of preventable death, resulting in 300,000 deaths per year.
So if Americans are dieting more, why do we keep getting fatter? With all of the claims that fad diets make around “losing weight and keeping it off” you’d think everyone would look like a fitness model.
So what’s going on?
The Definition of a Fad Diet
First, it’s important to understand that “fad diet” is a subjective term. So any definition of a fad diet will be up for debate.
The literal dictionary definition of a “fad diet” is “a diet that promises quick weight loss and is popular for a short time.” However, I’ve broadened the definition here to include any diet that has received extensive media attention or has generated underground or popular culture buzz. For example, Barry Sear’s Zone Diet wouldn’t qualify as a dangerous crash diet — but it certainly has generated enough on-and-off attention over the years to qualify as a “fad.”
Many fad diets undergo a cycle of extreme interest, followed by a period of dormancy, and then a resurgance. In other words, fad diets don’t die, they just burn-out and then often return a decade later, promising weight-loss salvation to an entirely new generation of frustrated, serial dieters.
The Difference Between Fad Diets and “Crash Diets
A “crash diet” is a type of diet that aims to produce very rapid weight loss in an extremely short period of time — often in less than 3-7 days. Crash diets almost always operate on extreme calorie restriction. Not all fad diets are “crash diets”, but all crash diets qualify as fad diets.
Spotting a Fad Diet
It’s not difficult to spot a fad diet if you know what to look for. Nearly all fad diets have certain characteristics that allow you to spot one quickly. While a fad diet will not necessarily have all of these characteristics, it will typically share at least three or more of the following:
- Claims of dramatic weight loss in short periods of time (typically in excess of 3 lbs a week)
- Reductions in overall calorie intake, often at or below 1000 calories total for the day
- Elimination of entire groups of foods or macro-nutrients (carbs, sugars, fats, fruit, bread, etc.) from the diet
- Over-emphasis on consuming certain macro-nutrients (protein, for example) in the diet
- Substitution a single food (grapefruit, lemon juice, cabbage soup, Special K Cereal) in place of normal whole meals
- Lists of “good” and “bad” foods
- Very little, if any, emphasis on exercise as part of the weight loss plan or diet
- Emphasis on extremely short dieting intervals, for example, “24 hour diet,” “3-day diet” or “7 day diet.”
- Claims that the diet will change body chemistry, overcome hormonal imbalances, or “fix” specific conditions that cause you to gain weight
- Use of complex scientific studies with simplistic conclusions to support the “science” of the diet
- Use of dramatic marketing language and too-good-to-be-true phrases like “quick-fix”, “melt off pounds instantly,” “lose fat fast”, “lose weight when you sleep,” “eat all you want and lose weight!” etc.
- Recommendations to purchase products as part of the diet, for example: supplements, herbal blends, protein or nutrition bars, health drinks, etc.
- Inclusion of laxatives as part of the diet
- Claims about “detoxification” associated with the diet
- Association with a popular celebrity or prominent company or organization
- Excessive media attention, especially in tabloid newspapers
- Circulated via e-mail, word-of-mouth or the web with no clear indication of its origin
- A price tag: Many fad diets require you to fork over money to access the diet or buy the book
This list is obviously very broad and inclusive, and not all diets that have these characteristics are necessarily unsafe or ineffective.
For example, even legitimate diets can become associated with a celebrity and attract a lot of media and press attention. However, as a rule of thumb, the more of the above characteristics the diet has, the more likely it qualifies as a “fad diet.”
The Anatomy of a Fad Diet
Fad diets are attractive to people for a number of different reasons.
Some of these reasons are fairly straight-forward and others are tied up in more complex phychological, personal and social phenomenon.
At their core, fad diets are attractive to people because they promise fast, dramatic results with minimal effort. “Effort”, of course, is relative. Obsessing over lists of prohibited foods, denying yourself entire food groups, or subsisting on maple syrup and lemon juice would probably strike a lot of people as anything but “easy and effortless.” Yet every day, thousands of people choose to go on these diets, when some basic changes to their existing diet and a dose of daily exercise would probably get them better long term results.
The emphasis on rapid results is also extremely alluring to people, especially in society trained to look for quick fixes in the form of pills or the instant gratification offered by fast food. Long-term weight and fat loss often require making fundamental changes to your overall lifestyle — including how you eat, and yes, how you exercise. Making these changes requires a longer-term vision of your health and fitness goals — something that requires commitment beyond “going on a diet” to get ready for your island vacation.
The Effects of Fad Diets: An Endless Wheel of Frustration?
Interest in fad diets is also fueled by the failure of previous fad diets to produce lasting results.
It’s not uncommon to find people who are “serial fad dieters.” They will have jumped from one diet to the next, in search of that weight loss “silver bullet.” Because most fad diets are not sustainable over the long-term and often cause rebound fat gain once the diet has been ditched, people seek out the next diet in hopes that it will produce lasting results. This creates a kind of vicious circle of fad and crash dieting that leaves people frustrated and often, fatter than they were before they started their “diet.”
The “newness” of trying a different diet is also a reason that people try fad diets. Each new diet — with it’s promises of amazing fat loss with little effort – gives the dieter a temporary jolt of hope and motivation. This can be almost addictive to some people, especially those who have tried other diets without the results they wanted.
Celebrity Diets & The Cult of Personality
Certain fad diets also play off from people’s obsession with celebrity.
The interest in Beyonce Knowles use of the “Master Cleanse” diet to lose weight for her “Dreamgirls” role is a good example of that.
People assume that if Beyonce — with her cadre of personal trainers and fitness “experts” — successfully used the diet, then it must be effective and “safe.” Of course, even Beyonce can get bad advice or fall prey to the allures of fad or crash diets. If Beyonce had been getting better ongoing fitness and nutrition advice from her trainers, she probably wouldn’t have needed to drink maple syrup and lemon juice for two weeks.
“But My Friend Said This Diet Really Works!”
Finally, like urban legends, fad diets typically spread on word-of-mouth.
Some fad diets, like the GM Diet, actually are urban legends. The Internet and e-mail has made it possible for these kinds of diets to circulate like wildfire. Emails get passed along, people talk about their “new diet” in the break room at work, they blog about it, twitter it, and call into radio shows. Suddenly, the diet is everywhere and it seems like everyone is trying it.
Because people trust what other people say — especially when they know that person — just the mention of a diet by someone you know or trust gives it credibility and legitimacy. If you hear more than one person talking about it, that only tends to strengthen that confidence. And because many of these diets do initially produce dramatic (but usually temporary and short-term) results, the fad diet will look like it’s effective. More often than not, if you go back to that person three months later, they’ll already be buzzing about the newest, next-best-diet that they are getting ready to “go on.”
Fad Diet Types
There are a number of different types of fad diets. Fad diets typically fall into one of 6 types or categories (and in some cases, will cross over into several):
- Extreme Calorie Restriction Diets: All fat loss diets will utilize moderate calorie restriction, but this type of fad diet often radically restricts calories in order to produce quick weight loss
- Food Restrictive Diets: These are diets that have you cut out entire macro-nutrients or certain types of foods, such as carbs or fruit
- Celebrity Diets: Endorsed implicitly or explicitly, these diets use association with a celebrity to drive interest
- Corporate/Organizational Diets: These are diets that claim to have originated from within companies or organizations. The GM Diet is a good example of this.
- Detoxification Diets: Diets that claim to “detoxify” the body
- Body Type/Blood Type/Psuedo-Scientific Diets: There are a whole groups of miscellaneous diets that are based on things like your body or blood type, Biblical principles (The Maker’s Diet), or evolutionary biology (The Paleo Diet.)
Do Fad Diets Work?
Nearly everyone knows a friend or acquaintance that swears their latest diet is working. And often, you’ll even notice that the person on the diet does appear to have lost weight.
The dirty little secret of fad diets is that most of them do cause people to lose weight — and sometimes that weight loss will appear to be dramatic, depending on how extreme the diet actually is.
For example, people who switch to low-carb diets like Atkins will often see a dramatic drop in scale weight within a few days, and may even find their clothing a little less snug than before they started the diet. Many people will mistake this drop in scale weight as a reduction in body fat. However, much of this weight loss comes from water.
Put the carbs back in, and the water weight returns.
This isn’t to say you can’t effectively lose body fat on a low-carb diet. It’s simply intended to show that diet results can be deceiving and that people really should consider gauging their progress by reductions in body fat levels, versus purely scale weight.
The volume of food you are eating can also have a marked initial impact on scale weight.
For instance, if you are on a diet that relies heavily on liquids (like the Master Cleanse/Detox Diet), you’ll see your scale weight drop very quickly because you simply are not eating foods with volume or much weight to them. If you cut out fibrous foods — which absorb water during digestion — you’ll see a temporary reduction in weight as well.
Many fad diets will result in some loss of body fat, since you typically will be reducing calories. However, these diets can also wreck havoc on your metabolism and endocrine system and cause rapid fat gain once you go off the diet. This is the reason that only 5 percent of people who go on diets will actually keep off the weight or fat they lost.
Are Fad Diets Safe?
The safety of fad diets really depends on the diet itself.
Some popular diets like South Beach or The Zone Diet are fairly balanced – they still include a lot of fresh vegetables, some healthy fats, certain complex carbs and protein. Fruit may or may not be on the list. The jury continues to be out on whether carbohydrate-reduction is an effective long-term strategy to maintaining your weight, and there are valid arguments on both sides around the safety and efficacy of sustained low-carb eating.
Other diets clearly come with serious health and safety risks.
For example, The Master Cleanse (also know as “The Detox Diet” or “Lemonade Diet”) is a liquid diet that not only completely cuts out macro nutrients like carbohydrates, protein and fats, but also provides only trace amounts of key vitamins, minerals and phyto-chemicals. The diet has been around since the 1930s, but recently gained renewed attention when a number of celebrities claimed to have successfully used it for weight loss.
The diet comes with a long list of reported side-effects, including headaches, constipation, digestive problems, imbalances in gut flora and fauna, loss of energy, etc. Often, proponents of the diet will claim these are signs that your body is “detoxifing”, but it should be noted that these are also the clinical symptoms of acute starvation.
Other diets like Kimkins, the Grapefruit Diet and the Cabbage Soup Diet radically restrict calories (to under 800 per day in some cases) or cut out essential macro-nutrients entirely.
These diets can not only result in nutritional deficiencies, but can also cause fatigue, mental confusion and sometimes serious side effects like cardiac arrest. Kimkins, for example, is a high protein diet that restricts both fat and carbohydrates, which can cause severe side effects as well as possible cardiac problems.
Finally, it’s important to note that serial fad dieting can often be a sign of a developing eating disorder, especially in adolescents, teenagers and young adults.
Fad Diets and Teenagers
Teenagers often find fad and crash diets particularly alluring.
A national survey of 11,631 high school students conducted by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than 43 percent of the girls reported that they were on a diet–yet a quarter of these dieters didn’t think they were overweight.
Teenagers — especially teenaged girls — are especially susceptible to the promises of fad diets, particularly those that claim to allow the dieter to eat whatever they want, including junk or fast food and still lose pounds. Fad diets and teenagers are a potential dangerous mix because this focus on quick-fix diets at such an early age can discourage teens from developing good nutritional habits, and set them up for a pattern of serial dieting into adulthood.
Moving from Fad Diets to a Better Diet
The good news is that because people either grow tired of the monotony of fad diets or find them too complex to follow, most people never stick to them long enough to cause serious, long-term damage to their health.
However, this also means that they’ll ultimately fail at long-term, sustainable fat loss and will be even more susceptible to the next fad diet that comes along. This can create a perpetual cycle of dieting that can de-motivate people and keep them from reaching their fat loss and fitness goals.
There is another way that has been proven time and time again to allow people to often dramatically transform their body and improve their overall health and well-being: consistently eating healthy and exercising.
The most healthy, in-shape people I know don’t “diet” — they eat a wide-range of foods; avoid eating more calories than they need (although they still tend to eat a lot of food volume wise and often eat up to six small meals a day); stay away from junk food, soda and fast food; and exercise at least 3-4 times a week — usually a combination of weight training and cardio activity. Many of them also allow themselves a “cheat meal” once a week, where they get to eat something a little less healthy (fried chicken, anyone.)
Taking this approach can actually enable a person to safely lose between 2-3 lbs of fat a week, and research has shown that individuals who lose body fat slowly are much more likely to keep it off permanently.
Minor adjustments to your diet can also have dramatic cumulative results.
Ditching soda, for example, for tea or flavored waters can often result in a loss of several pounds within just a few weeks. Substituting in complex carbs like oatmeal and brown rice for simple carbs like white rice and white bread, can also allow people to shed fat. In fact, finding foods that you can substitute for junk food is one of the most effective ways of cleaning up your diet and losing body fat for good. And you won’t starve yourself in the process or put your health at risk.
List of Popular Fad Diets
Here are a list of popular fad diets to look out for, as well as some of the alternative names of the diets.
Remember, not all of these diets are necessarily dangerous or ineffective. I’ve included some diets like South Beach and The Zone Diet because they are popular and have a few marks of fad diets. Other diets in here use extreme or “crash diet” techniques to trigger very rapid — but usually short-lived — weight loss:
- Apple Cider Vinegar Diet
- Atkins Diet
- Beverly Hills Diet
- Blood Type Diet
- Cabbage Soup Diet (Also known as the “Mayo Clinic Diet” or “Sacred Heart Diet” — even though the diet has been denounced by these organizations.)
- Caveman or Paleolithic Diet
- Cookie Diet
- Fast Food Diet
- Fat Smash Diet
- Fit For Life Diet
- Grape Diet
- Grapefruit Diet (Also known as “The Hollywood Diet”)
- Herbalife Slim and Trim Diet
- Ice Cream Diet
- Kimkins Diet
- Low Fat Diet
- Maker’s Diet
- Macrobiotic Diet
- Master Cleanse Diet (Also known as “The Lemonade Diet”, “Maple Syrup Diet” and “Detox Diet”)
- Metabolism Diet
- Mono Food Diet
- Negative Calorie Diet
- Popcorn Diet
- Prime Quest Diet
- Raw Food Diet
- Raw Vegetable Diet
- Scarsdale Diet
- Special K Diet
- South Beach Diete
- Zone Diet
- 3 Day Diet (Also known as the “Alabama 3 Day Diet”)
- 3 Hour Diet
Have a fad diet you’d like to see added to the list? Leave a comment or send an e-mail to: [email protected]
Category: Diet and Nutrition
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