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Don't Fall Victim to Fad Diets

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What is a fad diet?

A fad diet generally refers to an eating plan that is the latest craze and is often not based on solid scientific research. It preys upon the frustration and desperation of people who struggle with their weight by offering quick fixes and testimonials that seem too good to be true. Fad diets usually fade in popularity related to poor long term success, but tend to cycle around again in one form or another for a new generation to fall victim to.

How to spot a fad diet

  1. It usually promises rapid weight loss with very little effort.
  2. It often requires you to replace real food with special drinks or bars.
  3. It often encourages you to buy pills, powders, or herbal supplements.
  4. It may eliminate or severely limit certain food groups or require you to eat foods in specific combinations or ratios.

Why you may initially lose weight on a fad diet

Most fad diets are simply low calorie plans disguised as something special (with a big price tag). For example, most people WILL lose weight if they replace 2 meals a day with a low calorie shake.  The initial weight loss on a fad diet can be rapid and substantial, because you also tend to lose water and muscle weight on very low calorie plans.

Most people can sustain these plans for a little while due to the novelty factor, they’ve invested money, they get motivated by the initial weight loss, and because they like not having to make decisions about what to eat. However, studies have proven these plans difficult to sustain long term. Also, these plans usually don’t address the many reasons why most people are overweight, which can include inactivity, environment, genetics, hormonal issues and psychological factors.

Why fad diets can be risky to your health

  1. They can make you fatter. Very low calorie plans can cause a decline in your metabolic rate. You may end up gaining back more than you initially lost, and have a harder time losing weight in the future.
  2. They do not require proof of safety or efficacy. Unlike medications, which require FDA approval before they hit the shelves, diet and weight supplements are largely unregulated. The manufacturers do not have to prove that their products are safe or that they work. The FDA cannot recommend that the product be pulled from shelves until it has caused enough harm to get major media attention.
  3. They can make you sick. Too few calories and nutrients can impair your immune system and make you more likely to get sick. People on fad diets often experience diarrhea and/ or constipation related to lack of fiber, artificial sweeteners, strange herbs and other unknown additives that may be in the products they are taking.
  4. They can cause serious side effects. “Herbal” and “natural” does not necessarily mean safe. Hundreds of herbs and plants are known to be toxic, and others can cause problems for certain people in certain amounts. For example, Guarana is a natural form of caffeine that is found in many weight loss products. You generally will not be able to tell from the label how much caffeine is in that product. In some people, this could cause rapid or irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, or other negative effects. Long term use of these products could cause problems we will not be able to see or study for many years.
  5. They can cause malnutrition. Our bodies need protein, fats, carbohydrates and other nutrients to function properly. Lacking any of these nutrients can cause us to become malnourished. The beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals we get from whole foods are difficult, if not impossible, to put into a pill or powder form.
  6. They can cause a medical problem, or worsen an existing one. For example, diets high in animal protein can increase risk for heart and kidney disease. Diets that limit dairy could increase risk for osteoporosis. For people with diabetes, fad diets can cause instability of blood sugars.
  7. They can make you crazy. The brain needs adequate calories to fuel it, and carbohydrates are especially important for brain function. Proper nutrition better enables us to think clearly, stay focused and make good decisions. People who severely restrict their calories have been shown to have increased levels of depression, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, decreased sex drive, poor concentration, and difficulty sleeping.
  8. They can make you look less fabulous. Quick weight loss and yo-yo dieting can make you more prone to having loose skin, decreased muscle mass, and hair loss.

How to spot a safe, sensible plan

  1. It emphasizes a balanced diet that includes healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products and lean sources of protein.
  2. It recommends that you reduce your intake of saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars.
  3. It does not completely eliminate any foods, but rather teaches portion control and mindful eating.
  4. It encourages a weight loss of 1lb – 2lb a week.
  5. It discusses the importance of regular cardiovascular exercise and strength training.
  6. It does not require that you purchase any special drinks or pills.
  7. It addresses psychological issues associated with overeating, like emotional eating.
  8. It encourages you to see a Physician or Registered Dietitian if you have diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease or other chronic medical condition.

As the old adage goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t waste your money and risk your health on another fad diet plan or weight loss supplement. Eat a wide variety of nutritious foods in reasonable portions, increase your activity level, set small realistic goals, and be patient. Weight that comes off slowly is more likely to stay off for good.

Ellen Gillespie, RD