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Fad Diets: If it Sounds too Good to be True, it probably IS


Everyone has been tempted by the lofty promises of diets that guarantee rapid weight loss. In our impatient, want-it-now society, these types of diets have became increasingly popular. Popularity aside, however, these fad diets almost always result in the same four things: initial (yet minimal) weight loss, lack of sustainability, diet termination, and, finally, weight regain (normally in a greater amount than what was lost in the first place). Ultimately, the consequences of this inevitable cycle are both psychological and physiological, as the end result is a combination of frustration and damage to metabolic function. Identifying these diets and avoiding them at all costs is the only way to ensure that you don’t fall victim to their empty promises.

Before we talk about the identifying factors of common fad diets, I need to be up front with you about one thing. The picture these fads diet will paint will be far more attractive to you than what you actually will need to do to lose weight (which is be patient and make lifestyle changes to both diet and exercise). These diets will show you before and after pictures of 300-pound women turning into swimsuit models in what will seem to be a matter of weeks. Fad diets will promise you minimal work, with maximal results. Although these diets have no substantive science behind them, they will claim to have all the “secrets” you’ve never heard before. They will promise you the physique of your hopes and dreams, but deliver nothing.

One of the critical things to consider in this process is that diet and exercise are scientific, and science has vetted out appropriate weight loss interventions. Science also has identified diets that are ineffective, unhealthy, and flat-out dangerous. In an excellent article published in The Medical Journal of Australia (Roberts, 2001), the following factors were identified as common features of fad diets:

1) Promises of Rapid Weight Loss (greater than 2 pounds/week)
2) Magical Food or Food Combination
3) Unlimited or Free Foods of Some Type
4) Rigid Menus or Monotonous Food Choices
5) Jargon and Scientific Half-Truths
6) Lack of Scientific Evidence
7) Lack of Acknowledgement of Physical Activity

If you start to think of a lot of the contemporary diets out there today, they really fit this profile. The same article went on to outline questions you should ask when assessing a weight loss nutritional plan. The following questions will help to guide you in determining if you’re contemplating a fad diet:

1) Does the diet promote a new fact or newly discovered secret? If yes, then you’re looking at a fad diet (because there aren’t any secrets; what we know about weight loss now, is what we knew 50 years ago, and will be 50 years from now – move more/eat less – not very secretive)

2) Does the diet involve purchase of a commercial product? If yes, then you’re looking at a fad diet (because products, pills, or powders don’t get you to lose weight, eating less does – and best part, that’s free).

3) Is there a promise of rapid weight loss? If yes, then you’re looking at a fad diet (because rapid weight loss that is lasting isn’t physiologically possible).

4) Has the diet been independently tested and the results published in a reputable journal? If no, than the claims are unfounded and not true (or it would have been published in a journal in the first place).

5) Does the author or promoter have the appropriate scientific credentials? If the author doesn’t have an academic background in nutrition, dietetics, or exercise physiology, they have not been trained in nutrition (keep in mind, just because someone is a doctor doesn’t mean they know nutrition. The nutrition and exercise requirement of medical school is far less than that expected in an undergraduate exercise science program).

6) Will the diet result in only small quantities of carbohydrate foods being eaten? If yes then you’re looking at a fad diet (if for no other reason then your brain needs carbohydrates to function properly – need I say more?).

7) Does the diet promote adequate intakes of the main food groups: fruits and vegetables, cereal foods, low fat dairy foods, and lean meats? If no, then you’re looking at a fad diet (because they’re called main foods because you NEED the food they provide to live, hence “MAIN” food groups).

8) Is there an overemphasis on dietary fat or any one food type? If yes, then you’re looking a fad diet (because does eating a lot of butter, beef, and bacon even sounds like something healthy to do?).

9) Is the energy-balance equation recognized and physical activity promoted as an important part of this? If no, then someone is flat out lying to you (probably to take your money), because there is not an ounce of research that suggest anything other than moving more and eating less results in weight loss!

When you consider these questions, it becomes clear that a lot of the diets out there today are fad diets. These diets know all of the right buttons to push to make you a believer, but, sadly, there isn’t any truth behind what they’re saying. In fact, most of the time you know there’s very little truth to what the diets are promising, but you just want to believe it. The biggest distinguishing factor in this process is science. Ask yourself: have there been clinical trials performed that validate the intervention in use, or is it just someone’s opinion or get-rich-quick scheme?

Now, science gives us answers — they’re just not necessarily the answers we want to hear. Extending on the concept of the Roberts article referenced above, here are the components of an appropriate, scientifically-validated, and effective weight loss intervention:

1) Considers an individual’s current habits, preferences, and risk factors
2) Sets realistic weight loss goals of 1-2 pounds/week
3) Considers change in body composition via percent body fat method, not merely scale weight
4) Uses the calorie balance equation (calories in vs. calories out) as its foundation 5) Promotes a balanced approach to eating, including foods from each food group
6) Recommends increased physical activity and structured exercise
7) Is based on changing life-long eating and exercise habits

Now, these characteristics aren’t exciting, they’re not sexy, and they’re certainly not earth-shattering. What they are is reality. The reality is that lasting weight loss takes time, effort, and discipline. You didn’t gain the weight you want to lose overnight, so the expectation of losing it overnight is unrealistic, unachievable, and unhealthy. Your mother always told you: if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Diets that make grand promises are no exception.

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