Is it just me or does it seem like every week the media is highlighting a new “miracle food” or diet plan that claims to be the solution to all your problems?
In this FitBliss blog, you’ll learn about the history of fad diets, how to recognize them in the media, the pros and cons of some of the most popular fad diets today, and how to determine the best type of diet plan for you.
About Fad Diets
Fad diets have been around for centuries, but have significantly gained in popularity over the past few decades. The public is often attracted to the simple “quick fix” promoted by fad diets and are eager to give them a try. However, there is plenty of reason to be wary of fad diets.
Fad diets are just that: a fad, or something that is temporary and won’t last for the long term. The reason for this is because nearly all fad diets are not practical to be followed for an extended period of time. They are typically overly restrictive, require significant modifications of current eating habits and participation in social events, and can be expensive to follow.
The media profits financially from highlighting diet trends like these, so there is an ulterior motive behind the marketing. When a fad diet becomes popular, the companies behind the diet or products involved in the diet profit greatly. They have a reason to try to convince you that you “need” this product even if the rationale behind it is unrealistic, not scientifically sound, and even unhealthy.
How to Recognize a Fad Diet
The following guidelines can help spot a fad diet:
Involves the elimination of one or more food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy)
Eliminates or severely reduces an entire macronutrient (carbs, fat, or protein)
Promises a quick fix while being “easy to follow”
Makes recommendations based on a single study
Highlights and advertises a particular food as being the “miracle” answer to all of your health problems
Recommendations made to help sell a product
Recommendations from studies that ignore differences among individuals or groups
Fails to mention the long-term commitment that is needed to follow the diet
Fails to mention the possible negative health impact of following the diet long-term
Fad diets are rarely based on quality science, and are not concerned with long term health. Avoiding fad diets comes down to the basic principle that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Popular Fad Diets today
The Ketogenic (“keto”) diet is an extremely low-carb diet plan that aims to convert the body from burning glucose (carbs) for energy into burning fat, or ketones, for energy instead. The diet requires followers to limit their carbohydrate intake to about 30 grams or less per day in order to get into a state of “ketosis”. The remaining food comes from protein and fats. This diet has been around for more than a century and was originally developed for its therapeutic use in treating epilepsy.
There is some evidence that following a ketogenic diet can aid in weight loss. Fat and protein take longer to digest and are much more satiating than carbohydrates, so people also tend to feel less hungry. Because the diet eliminates most carbs, it is automatically restricted in sugar, which most people can benefit from eating less of.
This diet restricts many food groups including some vegetables, beans, grains, fruit, and some dairy, which makes it very difficult to follow. Followers are missing out on a variety of nutrients found in those missing foods including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Research also shows that due to the lack of dietary fiber in the diet, following the diet long term can negatively alter the gut microbiome, or the proportion of healthy gut bacteria needed for things like proper digestion, immune function, and managing inflammation.
Studies have also found that following the diet both short and long term may promote a loss of lean body mass. Lastly, it is not hard to understand why following the keto diet is not sustainable in the long run (because who can limit their carbohydrate intake that much forever?).
Similar to Keto, intermittent fasting has been around for a while yet has recently been regaining popularity over the past few years. It involves short-term fasts on a frequent basis, but there is customization allowed based on the followers preferences and health goals. Some people choose to eat only within an 8-hr time frame, while fasting the remaining 16 hours. Other variations of the diet include consuming a very low calorie diet (500-600 calories) one day, and alternate “normal eating” on the following day, or even alternating entire days of fasting and regular eating.
Some of the claims associated with intermittent fasting include weight loss, improving brain function, reducing cancer risk, reducing inflammation, and slowing the aging process. Because of the obesity epidemic, many people can benefit from reducing calorie intake. Allowing multiple hours between meals can also aid in proper digestion and absorption of food, due to supporting the migrating motor complex.
Intermittent fasting can be difficult to follow and requires a significant alteration in lifestyle.There is no strong evidence that shows that fasting adds health benefits beyond any other weight-loss strategy. This type of eating style also promotes a binge-restrict pattern which can lead to disordered eating habits. Intermittent fasting is not appropriate for a variety of people such as those at risk of severe hypoglycemia, pregnant women, and those with eating disorders. Many of the claimed benefits associated with intermittent fasting can be achieved by less restrictive eating habits.
Also called the “caveman” or “ancestral diet”, Paleo takes the premise of eating the way that our ancestors ate, which includes plenty of meats, produce, nuts and seeds but excludes processed foods, grains, dairy, and many other common foods today. The Whole 30 diet is very similar, yet is meant to be an elimination diet that is temporary, lasting for 30 days before beginning the reintroduction phase. Whole 30 is therefore a bit more strict than Paleo.
Both diets place a heavy emphasis on eliminating processed foods while increasing intake of fruits and vegetables, which are always good things. Both diets require the follower to become familiar with reading food labels which is a valuable habit to have, and they will likely result in the follower trying new foods. Completing the Whole 30 diet can also help uncover hidden food sensitivities by removal of many commonly eaten foods followed by reintroducing them to see how the body reacts. Both diets may aid in weight loss, and a branch of the Paleo diet called the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet is also touted to treat autoimmune disease and reduce inflammation in the body.
Like other fad diets, these diets are very restrictive and therefore can be difficult to follow. Following them may create an unhealthy obsession with food or interfere with social functions and cause added stress from trying to figure out what you are allowed to eat. Cutting out grains and legumes also cuts out valuable sources of B vitamins and prebiotic fibers that nourish the microbiome, which is another drawback. Ultimately, the diets are likely overly restrictive and similar health benefits can be obtained on a less regimented diet plan.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to the best diet for you. People are incredibly different, and what works for one person may not work for another. In addition, there is very rarely just one way to achieve a health goal.
Rather than viewing your diet as a short-term plan you will be on to accomplish a particular goal, view it as the way you eat for the healthy lifestyle you are passionate about leading. By definition, your diet is simply the foods you choose to eat, not a restrictive form of punishment.
True commitment to health requires effort and an open mind. The best diet for you is the one that is balanced, sustainable, and able to be enjoyed. Working with a Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist can help you identify the eating style that is best suited to your unique needs and lifestyle.
Joanna Foley, RD
Joanna has been practicing as a Registered Dietitian for over 5 years and is the owner of a private nutrition counseling practice at https://www.joannafoleynutrition.com/. Joanna believes that food really IS the best medicine and has a holistic, “whole body” approach to health. Having had personal experience with anxiety and disordered eating, Joanna is also passionate about helping clients transform their relationship with food and create positive eating environments, as well as to learn to use food & nutrition as a tool to recover from emotions such as anxiety. Joanna provides personalized nutrition and lifestyle counseling, and is dedicated to helping others achieve a healthier and happier life for the long term.
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