Fad Diets and The Risks

We all have at least heard of popular diets like Atkins and South Beach before, and some of you have maybe even tried them.  Our guess is that they didn’t provide you with the exact results you wanted or expected.  Why is this?  Well, unfortunately, fad diets bring a lot of dangers and risks with them.  Learn what those dangers are and why these diets don’t always work in the article below.

Dangers of Fad Diets

The vast majority of adults have been “on a diet” at some point in their lives, usually with the hopes of losing extra weight. One look into the plethora of diet advice and dietary plans available today, and it’s easy to feel instantly overwhelmed by information, much of which is contradictory. From diet pills to juice detox diets, today fad diets are everywhere. But are these quick-fix, often extreme diets effective, and more importantly, are they even healthy?

Most nutrition experts agree that the biggest problem with fad diets is that they’re not sustainable. Sure, you might be able to exclude entire food groups for a period of time or survive on way less calories than your body really requires, but the honeymoon phase with all-or-nothing dieting hardly ever lasts for long. As you’ll learn more about below, fad diets can also pose risks for side effects.

Dangers of taking dietary advice to the extreme — even if the person giving it to you is qualified and has good intentions — include slowing down your metabolism, increasing anxiety or stress over your food choices, and sabotaging your energy levels due to a thyroid imbalance. To be clear, making certain changes to your diet, such as cutting out processed foods in place of eating more real foods, is usually very wise and unlikely to cause any problems. But it’s also important to realize that every person is different, so a diet that works for your friend or doctor might not be the best fit for you.

The bottom line about fad diets? Instead of turning to fad diets in order to lose weight quickly, I recommend practicing patience and putting your effort toward taking the long-term approach to developing healthy, sustainable eating habits.

What Are Fad Diets?

What are different types of fad diets?

According to the Association of UK Dietitians, “A fad diet is the kind of plan where you eat a very restrictive diet with few foods or an unusual combination of foods for a short period of time and often lose weight very quickly. However, most people then get fed-up, start over-eating and choose less healthy foods and pile the pounds back on.” (1)

Fad diets are considered those that tend to become popular for a given period of time, such as several years or even decades, and then become replaced by yet another dietary theory, which might even be very different (or completely opposite) compared to the preceding diet. Fad diets typically fall into one of two categories: low-carb/high-protein or high-carb/low-fat diets.

Examples of popular fad diets include:

  • Macrobiotic Diet
  • Atkins Diet
  • Ornish Diet
  • Zone Diet
  • South Beach Diet
  • Master Cleanse Diet
  • Vegan Diet or Vegetarian Diet
  • DASH Diet
  • Even the Paleo Diet and Gluten-Free Diet — which have become increasingly popular in the past five to 10 years — are considered to be “fads” by some health researchers

What is the meaning of “food fad”?

Fad foods are those that are promoted as “magical fat-burning foods” that will quickly and easily lead to weight loss or health improvements. It can also be a fad to avoid certain foods or ingredients, a type of severe limitation. One example is excluding a whole food group, such as carbs or all dairy products. Food faddism often promotes eating mainly one type of food or certain foods only in particular combinations.

What is the meaning of faddism?

Faddism is a trend that encourages people to seek and adhere briefly to a passing variety of unusual diets, beliefs, regulations, etc. (2) Fads are usually tied to conformity, fitting in with a crowd or peer group, uniformity, and belonging. Other definitions include “a tendency to like a style, activity, or interest for a very short period of time.” (3)

By definition, faddism does not last. According to research done at the Boston University School of Medicine, most people are not aware that diets very rarely work for more than several weeks or months. Dieters are usually unaware of the facts pertaining to how dieting impacts their health or why fad diets fail so often. Studies have found that approximately: (4)

  • 98 percent of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back within five years.
  • 90 percent of people who lose weight gain back more weight than they originally lost.
  • Only 5 percent to 10 percent of dieters maintain weight loss that’s greater than 10 percent of their initial weight.
  • Some of the reasons that diets seem to fail so frequently include people losing willpower or motivation and returning to their old habits, people getting sick of feeling hungry and tired due to deprivation and feelings of restriction, and due to changes in “internal cues” (hormonal signals) that drive the desire to eat.

4 Dangers of Fad Diets

1. Might Leave You Fatigued, Hungry and Weak

Because fad diet plans are commonly marketed to people looking to lose weight, they’re often restrictive and low in calories. Not eating the appropriate amount of calories that your body requires, based on variables like your level of activity and genetics, can really backfire, however — such as by pushing you into a metabolic state that’s often referred to as “starvation mode.” Remember that just because the number on the scale might drop, it doesn’t mean this is a good thing. A reduction in subcutaneous adipose tissue (body fat) is associated with  improvements in markers like insulin sensitivity, but weight loss alone might mean you’re losing mass from other areas that you don’t want to be.

Many studies have found that chronic dieting and over-exercising have negative affects on your metabolism, hunger levels, energy, mood, sleep, hormone/reproductive health and body weight. Drastic and fast weight changes can even cause loss of tissue in your vital organs, decreased bone density and muscle wasting. (5) In addition, cognitive processes (like thinking, coordination and memory) are likely to become sluggish and foggy if you’re not properly fueled, which can cause moodiness, fatigue and muscle weakness.

A low level of ATP production (adenosine triphosphate, which is the chemical energy that powers your cells) will send signals to the brain that something isn’t right. All of these things pose negative effects on your resting energy expenditure and might even increase risk factors for metabolic problems like thyroid disorders.

2. Can Negatively Impact Hormonal Health and Your Metabolism

Under-eating for your body’s needs can trigger a primal drive to increase calorie intake quickly. When you don’t respond to these signals, studies have found that it’s possible to experience a slowing down of your metabolism, which actually makes you likely to gain weight. (6)

Fad diets that cut calories too low can decrease your ability to use energy (calories) from the foods you eat because this sends hormonal signals to your body to try to preserve energy due to perceived starvation (a lack of food). Some of the fad diet dangers associated with under-eating for longer than a short period of time (such as several days) include trouble sleeping, infertility, acne, increases in body fat, reduced strength and even depression.

3. Can Increase Stress, Guilt and Anxiety Over Food Choices

In the past, following yet another “failed diet” attempt, you might have noticed that both your mental capabilities and mood suffer. One thing to ask yourself is how “black and white” your thinking tends to be when it comes to your food choices. If you believe that only one type of diet (the one you’re currently on) is the best, the be-all and end-all of health, then it’s easy to become judgmental. And this judgment not only extends to other people who don’t adhere to the same diet, but can also be turned against yourself, causing guilt when you “slip up.”

Studies have found that dieters often feel guilt or shame about “falling off the wagon,” and that shame associated with eating behavior is the strongest predictor of eating disorders (like binge eating, anorexia or bulimia). (7) So if you find yourself feeling guilty, anxious or out of control around food — or telling the world about your current diet success and preaching to others that they need to follow suit — it’s time to rethink your approach to “healthy” eating.

4. May Be Ineffective and a Waste of Your Time!

It’s tempting to buy in to the idea that one particular way of eating, one food group or one form of dietary restriction is “good” — the answer you’ve been looking for — while others are “bad.” But it’s a lot smarter to keep an open mind and remain flexible. After all, even if studies support the benefits of certain diets, it doesn’t mean they’re completely necessary or helpful for everybody, considering we are all a bit different.

For example, if you have an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity to something like dairy or gluten, it makes sense to avoid these foods. But if you feel perfectly fine while eating them in moderation, especially if the rest of your diet is balanced and shows no signs of causing you any health problems, then it might be a waste of effort to avoid these things completely. Always keep in mind that fad diets tend to hype people up and make them believe that they must follow this one specific diet or else danger is coming. But as Alan Levinovitz, an author on dietary culture and religion professor at James Madison University, puts it, “When you bring certainty to [nutrition] science, you end up lying about the certainty of the science, you end up exaggerating the scope of the claims. In science, exaggeration is just deception.” (8)


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