If you’re one of the many resolution makers who want to lose weight this year and are plotting your next diet move and finding certain trendy diets tough to resist, let me stop you right there! I want to make 2019 the year we stop falling for fad diets.
I’ve been a registered dietitian for 20 years, which means I’ve seen tons of fad diets come and go. I can tell you that they all have a few things in common (besides the fact that none of them lead to sustained weight loss for most people). They all promise they’ll deliver bigtime, either very quick results, lots of weight lost, results that require that require minimal effort on the dieter’s part, or all three. These diets tend to have little research-based evidence for their effectiveness. Maybe they were tested in very small populations or on lab rats or other animals, but they have yet to be rigorously studied on human beings in such a way that their results would be useful for making health recommendations for the general public.
What these diets do tend to have are testimonials and anecdotes that attest to their life-changing potential.
Many fad diets have spokespeople (creators or influencers) who tell compelling before-and-after stories about how their lives (or the lives of their followers) were transformed by the diet. In fact, these stories are so compelling and the pressure on all of us to get as close as we can to some normative body ideal is so intense, I totally understand why fad diets are so attractive. I mean who wouldn’t want to try to thing that promises results that no other diet or program has delivered on before? After all, if someone is out here telling us they’ve discovered the one food group to avoid or the one way of eating that results in weight loss, and presents a ton of anecdotal evidence, it can seem too perfect to not try. Even people who know on some level that it wouldn’t make sense for this diet to somehow be different from every single other one that didn’t deliver are tempted by testimonials. And I get it; testimonials are powerful and persuasive. But remember, anecdotes can easily be embellished or falsified. Besides that, your genetics, body composition, living situation, finances, and pretty much everything else about your life and your body and your situation are different from anyone else’s, including the person who claims that this diet changed their life. So chances are, no matter how captivating the sales pitch is, your results will likely be different. Anecdotal endorsements and testimonials are often the only leg that fad diets have to stand on.
The other reason I implore my clients to avoid fad diets is that they can be psychologically harmful.
Restricting what we eat, whether in calories or foods/food groups can impact our relationships with food in detrimental ways. The years of being on and off of diets, losing weight and gaining it back, have caused many of my clients to feel as though they’ve wasted years of their lives being overly anxious about anything they eat. Because, like many people on diets, their identities are wrapped up in whichever diet they’re following, they assume their progress (or lack thereof) on the diet as a measure of who they are as people. All of their diet “failures” add up into my clients perceiving themselves as failures, which can be devastating to self-esteem and overall happiness.
Here are some red flags to help you avoid falling into the fad diet trap yet again. If a diet is advertised with any of the following, run the other way.
1. It uses absolutes to promise results.
Any diet that promises a certain amount of weight loss in a certain amount of time is making a promise it can’t live up to. First of all, even if being on the diet results in the quick weight loss it promises, the odds of that weight loss being sustainable are very, very low. But more importantly, we’re all different, and even the most scientific of weight loss programs can’t predict how much weight a person will lose. It’s just just an impossible prediction to make, and to make one is disingenuous. Even when I counsel clients for weight loss, and we go about it in a gradual, sustainable way with methods that have been associated with longterm weight loss, I refuse to give them a weight goal for the same reason. We just never know. Most importantly, weight goals affect us emotionally because if we don’t lose the predicted number of pounds, we tend to blame ourselves, which, again, can lead to feelings of failure.
2. It uses scare tactics to make you believe a kind of food is “toxic”.
This is one I see every single day, probably because fear is a great motivator. But that doesn’t mean it should be used to sell diets. The scare tactic involves an influencer claiming that we are harming ourselves by eating certain foods (legumes, dairy, wheat, sugar, and nightshades are some of the usual suspects) and the magical solution to fix this is with their diet and, very often, the diet’s branded supplements. Again, without rigorous evidence to show that these claims have been proven, anecdotes and compelling success stories are doing a ton of heavy lifting (which should be done by peer-reviewed research) when it comes to PR for these diets. But remember that claims without evidence—no matter how compelling the anecdotes are—shouldn’t inform our dietary decisions.
And besides all that, words like “toxic” and “bad” ascribe values to food (and by extension people who eat them). This is just not a healthy or useful way to think about food. And while some people of course have allergies and intolerances to certain foods, there aren’t any foods that, as a general rule, are toxic.
3. Following the diet requires you spend a lot of money.
Diets that are expensive to maintain, either because they require tons of proprietary supplements and special products or because they demand you buy grass-fed beef and butter, all-organic foods, and other speciality items, hold a sort of weird cache, perhaps because we associate expensive things with better products. So, if you’re spending a bunch of money on something, it must be because it really does facilitate weight loss. But neither weight loss nor eating nutritious food should ever be prohibitively expensive, and they should NEVER require you to buy supplements. If a diet requires you to follow a list of “permitted foods” such as grass-fed meat and butter, all-organic foods, and items you have never heard of such as costly powders and vitamins, turn and run.
4. The diet relies on science that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The recent buzz around lectin-free diets is the perfect example of how science (and science-y sounding things) can be used to sell a diet. Maybe you’ve heard that lectins, which are proteins in certain plant foods like legumes, are toxic when consumed in raw foods. So that part of the story is true. The side of the story that doesn’t always get told is that lectins are rendered harmless during cooking. Other lectin-containing foods that we eat raw, such as some vegetables, are tolerated well by most healthy people because our bodies have adapted to eating them. Unless you eat raw kidney beans, legumes and other lectin-containing foods shouldn’t harm you at all. If an influencer is using something that sounds scientific to prove their diet is solid, dig a little bit into their claims to make sure that any important details aren’t being left aside.
Remember: If any eating plan worked for the long-term, everyone would be at their ideal weight and the diet industry would cease to exist.
This year, make eating less about what you want to weigh, and more about how you want to feel, about yourself and about food. When it comes to fad diets, consider the cost—emotionally, physically, psychologically, and financially—and decide if they’re really worth it. If they’re not, consider exploring intuitive eating to start healing your relationship with food.