How to Spot a Fad Diet
Sadly, most of us are all too familiar with fad diets. Truth is, fad diets are attractive. They promote quick fixes and results, they have a very particular set of guidelines or rules to follow, and they're usually promoted by celebrities or other role models who seem to have it all figured out.
Having completed my studies in Nutritional and Dietetic Medicine at Endeavour College of Natural Health, one of the most important and valuable skills I gained was how to really analyse, critique and dissect all the nutrition claims that flood the media these days - basically, call out on all the BS out there! So I thought I’d write up a simple and quick guide on how to spot a fad diet and save yourself from the frustration and misery that almost always come along with them.
I can only imagine how overwhelmed and confused people without a degree in nutrition must get with all the claims out there (especially in the media and social media!). Many fad diets have all of the seemingly wonderful and science-y sounding facts and claims that go with them, yet no long-term studies to back them up, or the information has been completely taken out of context, cherry-picked, or doesn’t even make sense in the first place. Even scientific studies can be very misleading when you don’t have the knowledge to review and analyse all the different factors thoroughly. One of my favourite units of my degree at Endeavour was called Nutritional Physiology Research, and I learnt SO much in these few weeks of analysing and critiquing scientific literature for not only their methods and accuracy, but their relevance to us too!
Any type of diet that promises rapid weight loss and certain health advantages without a good amount of scientific evidence to back up these claims should be approached with caution. Fad diets are almost always very restrictive and might involve the removal of certain food groups or extreme restriction of certain macronutrients, often demonising these restricted foods in a very convincing manner. This kind of restriction not only paths the way to a very negative and toxic relationship with food, but can lead to a whole range of physiological consequences too - including nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances and metabolic adaptations to conserve energy (read: a slower metabolism!).
Fad diets often lead to ‘yo-yo dieting’. Jumping from one diet to another in attempts to lose weight, followed by gaining all the lost weight back again because the diet isn’t maintainable. And of course it isn’t maintainable in the long term, because it lacks balance, doesn’t fuel and nourish your body’s needs and doesn’t give you flexibility to eat the foods you love and that make you feel good in your body, mind and soul.
The following points are outline some very important key things to consider before jumping onto a new diet, to help you spot the fads from the facts:
It’s very restrictive, cuts out whole food groups or macronutrients
Restrictive diets that cut out certain food groups or only allow a very limited number of foods aren’t sustainable. One of the biggest predictors of good health when it comes to nutrition is variety! And fad diets are usually majorly lacking in that department.
Cutting out any macronutrient (carbs, protein and fats) is an extreme that causes a whole lot of stress on the body, usually leading to hormonal imbalances, period loss in females, poor exercise performance, nutritional deficiencies and more.
Cutting out food groups like fruit or legumes or grains (unless it’s due to a medical reason!) also is totally unnecessary, as these are all associated with a whole range of health benefits and increase variety in the diet to promote great gut health and help you meet all of your nutrient needs.
The other thing is: Eliminating certain foods and creating rules on what can and can’t be eaten increases the desire and cravings for these ‘banned’ foods. This almost always leads to overeating/binging on these said foods sometime down the track, followed by self hate, shame, disgust, feelings of failure and cue the horrible binge-restrict dieting cycle.
Now to me that sounds anything BUT sustainable or healthy for the body, mind or soul.
2. It's promoted and marketed by people without proper qualifications in nutrition
Question everything! Are they trying to sell you something? Is this person making money off promoting their diet and you following it/buying their products or books?
Is there science to back up these claims? Or is it just someone preaching something on social media, who just happens to have ‘body goals’?
A little fun fact for you: A lot of diet books out there aren’t even written by nutrition professionals. Some are written by lawyers, bloggers, journalists, chefs, you name it! And just because they’re cherry-picked a few random studies that kind-of support their claims doesn’t make it a good one either.
My advice, if you’re unsure, look to what the qualified professionals in the nutrition industry (ie. university qualified nutritionists and dietitians), and up-to-date literature reviews (not one-off studies!) are saying!
3. It promises very rapid weight loss
Rapid weight loss may seem appealing, but most of this weight loss is actually just a loss of water, glycogen and lean muscle, not fat.
For example, for every 1 gram of carbohydrates stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver, an additional 2-4 grams of water are stored along with it. So when you go on a low carb diet, you deplete those glycogen stores and lose up to a few kgs very quickly - but it’s really just all water weight!
Furthermore, when we eat less than our bodies need to function, we begin to break down muscle tissue in order to meet our energy needs, and this happens much more easily than the breaking down of fat stores.
Breaking down muscle tissue results in more water loss, loss of lean mass (as opposed to fat mass), and a reduced metabolic rate, so when the diet is stopped, you not only gain back the water weight instantly, but your metabolism is slower than before going on the restrictive diet.
Any diet that promotes rapid weight loss as one of the main promises signals alarm bells to go off in my head! Weight loss should never be the main goal. Being healthy, having a great relationship with food, feeling good and having a properly functioning body with balanced hormones and energy levels in the long-term should be the priority. Because when you eat to support those things, it’s sustainable and enjoyable (meaning you can keep it up for the rest of your life) and this magical thing happens where your body finds it’s healthiest weight automatically!
It just takes time. Trust the process.
4. It requires you to buy superfoods, meal replacements or supplements
There is no such thing as one magic food that will make you lose weight or cure that disease or be healthy. There just isn’t.
There’s also no such thing as ‘superfoods’, and these definitely aren’t a necessary part of a healthy diet.
Have you ever noticed that almost all ‘superfoods’ or supplements tend to be totally overpriced, often hard to find (at first, before everyone and their neighbour starts selling them!), often come with a lot of packaging from some far off place like the Amazon? It’s all just marketing!
Here’s some great news though: ALL plant foods are real superfoods! Packed full of health promoting fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. And they provide our bodies with everything they need to be their healthiest. All at your local supermarket or farmers market (or even in your garden!).
But unfortunately, an overall healthy, whole foods diet doesn't make the diet industry anywhere near as much money, or sound as appealing, as the magical superfood….
5. The evidence for the diet comes from testimonials or just a single study
One study doesn’t make it a fact. In fact, not even a few studies do. Nutrition science is SO complicated and complex, with so many different factors and circumstances coming into play, such as funding, methodology, bias, type of study, duration and length, sample size and so much more.
Before and after photos, or testimonials, on social media is not ‘evidence’, as you don’t know the whole story. There could be a thousand different factors coming into play and to be honest, it be not even be the whole truth!
Even scientific studies can easily be manipulated, biased or misinterpreted. This is why it’s important to look at the overall conclusion that can be drawn from the total evidence on a topic/diet, rather than a single result from a single study. And for diets, we simply don’t have that evidence yet to draw conclusions (for example, the long term health effects of a veto diet, as all studies so far have been short term!).
6. No populations have thrived eating that type of diet
For me, this is a big one. When looking at healthy dietary and lifestyle patterns, a great place to start is the ‘Blue Zones’. These are the areas in the world (including the Mediterranean, the Japanese island of Okinawa, the Seventh Day Adventists etc), where the populations live the longest and healthiest lives.
By looking at these, we can see they all have overlapping common factors - they eat a mainly whole foods diet, rich in high fibre plant foods (fruit, veggies, legumes and whole grains), they eat a diet low in red meat, refined sugars and processed food, they lead active lifestyles and have low stress levels with good social lives and high important of community. They aren’t eating keto, they aren’t strictly eliminating all sugar or all purple foods or anything else like that. In fact, they don’t really have any ‘rules’ at all. They just eat mainly whole foods, mainly plant based, and mainly home cooked food!
I hope you found this post helpful as a guide to thinking critically about the next dietary trend you read or hear about, before jumping onboard! And let me know if you have any questions r experiences you’d like to share, I always love hearing from you. xx
This post is a collaboration with Endeavour College of Natural Health, where I studied my Bachelor of Health Science.
Photography by the talented Rae Marie Lifestyle.