Dieting seems to have become one of the most popular activities in America. More than 50 million Americans go on a diet each year. Yet, only about 5% manage to keep the weight off over the long run.

Americans spend $30 billion a year on diet products, such as pills, drinks and weight loss programs. Consumers are constantly searching for the “magic diet” — one that will help them lose weight quickly and effortlessly.

The same trend is visible in South Africa and especially just after the festive season. It is very important to remember that fad diets will not only leave you dissatisfied because of weight being regained, but it can also be harmful to your health. Remember that slow and steady wins the race.

What is the definition of a fad diet:  Weight reduction diet that either eliminates one or more essential food groups or recommends consumption of one type of food in excess at the expense of other foods.

Fad diets are recognised by:

  • A promise of magic or miracle foods that burn fat.
  • Foods don’t burn fat. If we eat more than we need (too many calories), the extra food energy is stored as fat.
  • There are no quick-fixes and the ‘fixes’ that seem ‘quick’ are usually due to a loss in water-weight, and ultimately lead to weight being regained.
  • Outrageous quantities of only one food or type of food.
  • All foods can be a part of a healthy diet, but eating large quantities of one food could lead to intestinal gas, bloating, flatulence and bad breath, as well as nutritional imbalances that could have a serious impact on your health. Emphasizing only one food or food type is also boring.
  • List of ‘good’ & ‘bad’ foods
  • There are not inherently ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, but rather good and bad eating patterns. Too much restriction can lead to over-indulgence when confronted with ‘bad’ foods.
  • Rigid menus.
  • Some fad diets allow a very limited selection of foods which must be eaten exactly as written and at a specific time and day. These limited diets don’t allow for the taste preferences of a diverse population.
  • Specific food combinations.
  • There is no scientific evidence that eating foods in certain sequences or combinations has any scientific or medical benefit.
  • Promises rapid weight loss.
  • Rapid weight loss of more than 1,5kg a week can be dangerous over a long period of time.
  • No health warning
  • There is no “one size fits all” and even if you lose weight, your health can be seriously affected without you knowing it. If there is no health warning for individuals with chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure to seek medical advice before going on the diet, it might be regarded as a fad diet.
  • No increased physical activity
  • To lose and maintain weight loss, physical activity needs to be an integral part of the diet plan. It also helps to improve other important health markers, such as cholesterol, blood pressure and insulin sensitivity.
  • Recommendations made to sell a product
  • Ask yourself; what does this person / blog / company stand to gain if I buy into this idea. Oftentimes fad diets are extremely expensive because they ask for website subscriptions or promote buying specific books.
  • Claims that sound too good to be true
  • If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Now that you know how to spot a fad diet, the common reply is – but it is only for a short while. Remember that driving your car 1 km extra if it has an empty tank can cause a lot of damage, similarly, following a fad diet can do the same.

Here is why you should preferably not follow one:

1. Not based on scientific evidence.

Many fad diets will claim that ‘science has shown’ or ‘studies have found a link’ – however, anyone that knows the price, process and effort of conducting research will tell you; evidence doesn’t change every month or two. But magazines need to be sold and people are all waiting for the magic cure.  The simple fact that fad diets are not evidence-based is the reason that they are called a “fad” at all, otherwise they would likely be featured in scientific medical and nutrition journals.

2. Fad diets are unbalanced

As most fad diets promote cutting out whole food groups, this can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

  • Diets which exclude most foods except for fruit, vegetables, pulses and nuts will lead to greatly reduced intake of: iron, calcium, protein, healthy fats and whole grains (which are a great source of fibre, slow released energy and B vitamins). This in turn could lead to problems such as anaemia, osteoporosis and bowel issues to name but a few.
  • Other diets also cause nutritional excesses, for example, juice diets are very in high sugar but low in: slow-release energy, fibre, protein, fat, iron, and calcium.

3. Fad diets slow your metabolism

Because our bodies have built-in mechanisms to keep all of its bodily systems stable, collectively called homeostasis, if it is deprived of nutrition your body protects itself by breaking down muscle mass.

Muscle, being more metabolically active than fat, influences your basal metabolic rate and if it is broken down, your metabolism slows down so that it can continue to function although it is receiving less fuel.

4. Fad diets are not individualised

Fad diets promote a “one fits all” approach which doesn’t take into account a person’s medical situation, psychological state or their financial position.

For example, if a person with diabetes started following a fasting diet it could lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels, which could potentially lead to a hypoglycaemic coma.

5. Fad diets are unmaintainable

The very restrictive nature of fad diets makes it unrealistic to maintain for the rest of your life, and when slip-ups occur this can lead to bingeing as a response to such severe limitation. Fad diets promote an “all or nothing” approach which can lead to cycles of purging and bingeing resulting in unbalanced eating habits in the long run.

6. Fad diets can cause disordered eating

Linking with the previous point, fad diets can create an overall unhealthy relationship with food causing people to “food shame” and associate missteps with guilt. Fad diets can also potentially mask or create eating disorders depending on the level of obsession involved, such as “orthorexia nervosa”.

7. Fad diets can be socially isolating

Nourishing your body isn’t purely physical and an essential part of health and survival. Eating and drinking is also an important part of socializing. Having meals with friends or work colleagues can be problematic and may lead to feeling alienated and isolated.

8. Fad diets can be costly

Most fad diets ask for website subscriptions, promote buying specific books, sell slimming teas, weight loss capsules, appetite suppressants, to name but a few. As mentioned in the introduction; Americans spend roughly R 420 billion annually on diet products!

9. Fad diets are risky

As mentioned above, fad diets can cause a number of health complications such as: nutritional deficiencies, nutritional excesses, interacting with medical conditions, the formation of eating disorders and feelings of social isolation.

10. Fad diets are unnecessary!

Rather opt for a more sustainable, healthier and less restrictive approach, such as a Mediterranean-style diet.

  • It can have a preventative effect against: obesity, heart disease, diabetes risk and certain kinds of cancers.
  • Have regular meals containing plenty of fruit, vegetables, beans and pulses, whole grains, and fish.
  • Use olive or rapeseed oil instead of other fats.
  • Avoid excess sugar, fat, salt or calories.
  • Keep portion sizes modest.
  • Be physically active.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, but maintaining a healthy balanced diet by including foods from each food group as well as allowing yourself to have treats in moderation, will result in a much healthier and more enjoyable relationship with food. This will result in much better health outcomes long-term, so skip the fad diets!

Retha Booyens (RD) SA