The Truth About Fad Diets

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, weight loss is a very large and profitable market. With obesity rates at a historic high combined with a recent increase in health awareness, more people than ever are trying to shed those extra pounds and get healthy. Out of all of the available health advice out there on the internet, there remains one simple truth: in order to lose weight you must be in a calorie deficit. This means you have to be consuming fewer calories than you are burning through activity.

In order to decrease the number of calories you are consuming, you will either eat smaller portion sizes, or consume foods that are less calorically dense. Either way, you will be following some guidelines in regards to your dieting protocol. The dieting industry has capitalized on this fact, as well as each individual’s intense desire to shorten the weight loss process as much as possible, by introducing a variety of commercialized diet systems meant to aid in rapid weight loss. These diets, often referred to as “fad” diets, set specific guidelines for what an individual can or cannot eat, what type of exercise to complete (or lack thereof), and generally include a secret ingredient for immediate weight loss success. Slap on a celebrity endorser, and you have a recipe for skyrocketing sales of the product in question.

Some popular examples of fad diets include the Atkins Diet, Volumetrics, and South Beach Diet, just to name a few. Each diet places the focus on a different aspect of nutrition, but all share commonalities in their structure. While the idea of these diets is appealing, it has been shown that fad diets don’t work in the long term. Although there may be an initial weight loss, individuals following these diets generally find it hard to keep the weight off, and regain those initial lost pounds. In some cases, certain fad diets have caused serious health consequences for their followers.

Some claims made by fad diets are completely unfounded.1 These diets generally count on celebrity endorsements to gain popularity. Here is one such example: 

In this program, the “secret ingredient” to easy and rapid weight loss is a supplement called caralluma extract. According to the article, the extract of this plant (native to India) causes significant decreases in weight in as few as two weeks. The page is full of celebrity endorsements and testimonials as well as before-and-after pictures. The extract is claimed to make changes in the intestinal bacteria, which affects metabolism. However, in taking a closer look at the caralluma extract product, there is insignificant evidence to prove it has any positive effect on weight loss.2

What exactly is a fad diet? How can consumers identify when they are being sold one of these ineffective diet programs? It’s easier than you think. All fad diets share some common characteristics:

1) No Exercise is required or promoted

Any fad diet that claims you can have the body of your dreams without exercise is a flat-out lie. While eating a healthy diet can promote a healthy body and lead to weight loss, there are physiologic benefits that you can only get from exercise, such as increasing muscle mass (which aids in weight loss). No diet can replace that.


2) Completely eliminates or restricts specific food groups

Any fad diet that makes broad generalities such as “carbs make you fat,” or “all fat should be avoided” is making unfounded claims. Carbohydrates, fats, and protein all play a vital part in giving your body all of the nutrients it requires to sustain itself. Eliminating any of these in its entirety can have serious health consequences and can also negatively affect your performance in the gym.3


3) Claims you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight

Some fad diets claim that you can eat as much food as you want, as long as it comes from a particular source. These claims generally go along with the low- or no-carb fad diets, but are also sometimes accompanied by a pill or liquid supplement. Generally these claims suggest that if you take their supplement (or eliminate carbs) you can then eat however much you want of a certain group of foods without fear of gaining weight. Again, this is no support to back up this claim. While the quality of the calories you consume definitely matters, weight loss fundamentally comes down to calories in versus calories out, and eating anything in excess will lead to weight gain.


4) Require excessive caloric restrictions

We need some sort of calorie deficit to lose weight. Fad diets often take this to the extreme in order to “produce results fast.” Any fad diet that requires excessive caloric restrictions will not be sustainable in the long-term. Additionally, consuming too few calories carries with it a multitude of potential negative effects, including stalled weight loss, irritability, fatigue, hair loss, and serious nutritional deficits, to name a few.4


5) Require you to purchase a specific pill, powder, liquid, or other form of supplement

Most of these claims are unfounded scientifically,5 and are just a gimmick to get you to spend more money than you need to. Generally these types of diets will “supplement” your healthy eating and exercising behaviors to make you more successful, when in reality you will be successful only from the other healthy choices you are making. Most often these “breakthrough” supplements do very little (if anything) to aid in your weight loss.


6) Make statements that are too good to be true

Anything promising rapid weight loss is likely bogus. People generally want to lose weight as quickly as possible, so a program that promises quick results can be very tempting. Some may work in the short term, often requiring extreme caloric restriction or unrealistic eating patterns. As soon as you go back to eating normal foods you will regain much of the weight initially lost.

While the promise of quick and easy weight loss is tempting, know that there is no shortcut to good health. Eat a nutritious and balanced diet full of lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and good fats; and keep a regular exercise routine that includes both cardiovascular and resistance workouts. Trust the process, work hard, and you will see results. The difference is that these results will LAST, and you will be a happier and more confident version of yourself.