fad diets

Initially when deciding to research Fad Diets, I was convinced that this was an easily defined diet type adopted by lazy people wanting quick results with little work, and peddled by snake-oil salesmen, charlatans or celebrities. Now I am not so sure.

When someone chooses to go on a diet, whether it be for health reasons, or because they may want to look and feel better, the type of diet chosen will often be influenced by their doctor’s suggestion, what their friends have tried or the latest pop-idol endorsement. The choosing is the easy bit, as we all know that successfully changing a life time of bad eating habits is not easy, and that failure is often the result.

Why do diets often fail the dieter then? Often it is the type of diet chosen that is the primary problem. Once the diet ends, and end it will because most diets are unsustainable, people revert back to their old habits through the failure to change their mindset along with the change in food.

Conventional diets, the type prescribed by doctors, often fail because in the participant’s eyes, they take too long to work, are boring or too restrictive, and in the end, result in cravings that lead to cheating. Because of these failings many unhappy dieters will turn to what mainstream doctors and dieticians term “fad diets” since these types of diets assure quick weight loss with little effort. Unscrupulous companies promoting these diets often take full advantage of the fact that dieters want quick-fixes, and tap into this desperation by promising unrealistic results.

According to Wikipedia, the modern fad diet originated in the 1930s with the Hay Diet (a food combining diet) and is typical of fad diets that (as many conventional diet plans also do!) limit certain food choices. The aspect of restricting food choices is often packaged in a more appealing way by diet company’s but still with the same end result – once coming off the diet you can end up gaining back the weight you struggled to lose. The fact remains, however, that these diets do work – for a limited time – before the dieter returns to their previous food habits – just as with conventional diets.

When compared side by side, there appears to be little difference in results between the outcomes of what are called fad diets and what are classified as conventional diets – except one is acceptable to the medical profession and one is not. The cruel fact of fad diets is that they often promote false hope and remove money from your pocket rather than fat from your waist!

According to the online Free Medical Dictionary, for a diet to be determined as a “fad”, it needs to exhibit a number of characteristics. However, as you will see, just about any diet regime or way of eating could be bundled into the fad diet group.

The Free Medical Dictionary characterizes the Fad Diet by:

  • the speed of the promised weight loss;
  • the “too good to be true” facet;
  • the elimination of one or more of the essential food groups;
  • the lack of valid scientific research;
  • the designation of good and bad foods;

For most of us, a fad diet is considered to be one that returns quick results but through an unhealthy way of eating. The type of diet that is considered a “Fad Diet” by mainstream medical institutions may surprise you however, with some well known and well recognized diets being termed fad diets.

For example, the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), describe the following diets as “popular fad diets” – Atkins, DASH, Ornish, Gluten Free, Mediterranean, Paleo Diet and Vegetarian. Yes that’s right – VEGETARIAN! In BUSPH’s learning modules they actually say that “at some point in your career, you may need to provide dietary counseling to a vegetarian or vegan”. Who would have thought Vegetarians were complicit in adhering to a fad diet!

How is this? Isn’t a vegetarian diet fairly common these days? After all there are 7.3 million vegetarians in the United States alone. It basically comes down to how the fad diet label is defined. Remember that one definition of a fad diet is the “elimination of one or more of the essential food groups” and the exclusion of certain types of food over others. Vegetarianism is distinctly a diet that excludes certain foods! Due to this, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UMPC) also  defines this as a  fad diet.

Once upon a time vegetarianism was for new-age naturalists. Now it has become a mainstream lifestyle adopted by not only celebrities but the man (and woman) in the street. Moreover many scientific papers support this lifestyle choice. A study by The National Institutes of Health found that, “plant-based diets are cost effective and a low-risk intervention” and that by sticking to this choice of lifestyle, chronic illness and mortality rates have been shown to be reduced. So would you class this as a fad diet?

Another diet also defined as a fad diet on the BUSPH list, is the Atkins Diet. This way of eating is a bit more controversial, and is often demonized by conventional medicine, but still has millions of advocates around the world.  The Atkins diet is a low-carbohydrate diet and as such eliminates certain types of “bad” foods in its eating regime and is therefore restrictive in its approach.  This defining of good and bad foods as part of a way of eating, according to those who know, is a characteristic of a fad diet. Nevertheless for many, the Atkins Diet works, and I personally think it is unfair to put this in the same category as the Cabbage Soup Diet or the Morning Banana Diet. Additionally, Bantings, a variations of the Atkins low-carb diet has been around for 150 years.  If “fad” implies something temporary, then this diet fails the fad diet litmus test too.

I agree that there are many diets out there which can truly be given the label Fad Diet, but if fad diets are so bad, why do people continually persist in using them? Sadly, those with problems will often try anything that promises to help them lose weight, and the quick fix of a so called fad diet is music to many ears, when making an effort to lose weight, is not welcome, nor feasible for many.

Diets of this type appeal to people by promising immediate weight loss that is quick and easy, without having to make long-term changes in their eating and exercise habits. They also help people feel that they belong to a group of likeminded people defined by a strict way of eating.  This support, minimal as it may be, is not often offered in conventional doctor or self planned diets when you may be in a group of one. As I see it, the biggest problem with the true fad diet is the trading of one set of unhealthy eating habits for another, with little thought for long term health planning.

According to detractors, fad diets are distinctive by the fact that they rarely follow sound nutritional principals for weight loss and are generally not endorsed by the conventional medical profession. However I do not believe that an endorsement by traditional medical professionals should dictate what is and what is not a worthwhile diet. The track record of the medical and pharmaceutical professionals in the area of dieting is not all that impressive – you just need to look at the Sugar V Fat literature – and many diets ridiculed by mainstream practitioners work for those involved. At the very least they often get unhealthy people to think about making changes. The use of the label “Fad Diet” is emotive and discriminatory, as not all diets labeled as such are necessarily faddish or bad.

Additionally, when assessing different ways of eating, you need to evaluate the motivation of whoever is actually promoting “their” way of eating, or discouraging another way. Do they have a stake in its success,  have an agenda within an overarching philosophy or are they likely to profit from selling their idea?

For instance, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine  actively opposes the Atkins diet philosophy and promotes nutrition in medical education, while conducting research into healthy diets and educating people about nutrition. But drill down further and you will also find that they are a fanatical animal rights group that seeks to remove eggs, milk, meat, and seafood from the American diet. They also advocate the elimination of the use of animals in scientific research, and have links to the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

So is there really something that can be termed a fad diet? How do you determine if an advertised diet is a serious candidate to improve your health or merely another  way to lighten your pocket?

I believe the more insidious diets are the pseudoscience diets sold (e.g. “magical fat-burning” foods or pills) that prey on the vulnerable, health affected individual. The deceptive health benefits are often  sold along with further purchases of associated products or with the need to pay to attend seminars, in order to gain the benefits of the diet. These types of diets, if they can be called this, become an expensive habit when the food stuff is only available from a single source.

So who or what is at fault here? Is it the conventional type diet that the doctors peddle, the fad diet that money orientated company’s peddle or the dieters themselves?

Healthy weight loss does not come via a miracle diet. It comes with food education, healthy eating, regular exercise and with the making of small lifestyle changes that can be adopted for the long term. The biggest fault with any kind of intervention type diet, be it fad or conventional diet, is that it is finite in its assistance. It would appear that all diets have an element of the Fad Diet about them and do not help the individual learn what is a balanced, nourishing and enjoyable way to eat.

In the end it is really up to the dieter to determine if what is being termed a fad diet is really the one for them. The criteria needs to be determined by the specific user to see if the diet will meet their needs and aims and then it is up to them to make the most of their choice to get the maximum reward. However this is only a part of one’s health journey, and a long term strategy needs to be part of the overall plan.

As a general rule, I believe any type of “diet” should have short term, fixed goals that are followed up with a long term strategy to enable a lifetime of sustainable eating. Diets will get you to a certain point but it takes a non-obsessive, mindful eating lifestyle to achieve a healthy life style.  All diets are unsustainable and the line between differing diet models, and their success for the individual, is not at all clear cut. The basic principles of a good diet are simple – eat less, move more, and think before you eat. It also involves basic planning, the reading of labels, and a disciplined approach to food  for each individual.