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Risks of Fad Diets and 5 Things to Do Instead for a Healthier Way of Life

Fad: a practice or interest followed for a time with zeal: CRAZE (Merriam-Webster). This article explores the risks of fad diets and what to instead for a healthier way of life.

WHAT ARE FAD DIETS?

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A fad diet promises quick changes to your health and body size, often with a hyper-focus on weight loss, rarely follows sound nutrition principles, and is generally not endorsed by medical and nutrition professionals. Here’s how to recognize a fad diet: 

  • Promises a quick fix with claims that sound dubious.
  • Based on testimonials
  • If based on a study, it is not peer-reviewed, meaning the author’s study was not subject to the scrutiny of researchers and experts in the field. 
  • Pits “good” or “savior” foods against “bad” foods.
  • Reduction or complete removal of one or more entire food groups
  • Promotes cleansing, detoxification, fasting, or liquid meal replacements
  • Food specific such as the cabbage soup, cookie, and grapefruit diets. 
  • Rigid, “one size fits all” approach. 
  • Recommends a book or product for the diet to work.
  • Endorsed by a celebrity, social media influencer, or another popular public figure.

RISKS OF FAD DIETS

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Short term and target the wrong kind of weight loss

Fad diets by their restrictive nature could result in weight loss. But the weight loss in a short period is mostly water weight and muscle mass, not fat tissue (2).

They’re called “fad” for a reason

Fad diets lose their novelty over time especially if they’re too restrictive and/or if a specific weight loss goal is not achieved.  When the feelings of deprivation, boredom, and frustration kick in, people see their impracticability and start to ease up on the restrictions. 

Nutritional deficiencies

Some fad diets instruct you to remove or reduce an entire food group – foods that contain fiber, essential nutrients, and antioxidants required for optimal body functioning. Nutritional deficiencies could lead to but are not limited to the following (2):

  • General weakness, fatigue, moodiness, and headaches.
  • Negative effects on your bone, digestive, heart, kidney, and muscle health.
  • Hormonal imbalances and reproductive health problems. 
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Bad breath
  • Hair loss
  • Iron deficiency anemia

Slow metabolism and weight gain

The nature of fad diets is deprivation. The body’s natural response is to fight back with a powerful mechanism called “survival mode” governed by the primitive part of the brain. This will lower your metabolism and your body will hoard every consumed calorie, causing weight gain (and then some) when you go off the fad diet. 

Fad diets could lead to going on and off them or “yo-yo dieting” – which can disrupt your metabolism and cardiovascular health (3). 

Psychological risks

Fad diets could turn into chronic dieting, which may lead to an obsession with food and meticulous tracking of food, periods of binge eating, low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders (2).

Can be expensive

If you’re on a diet that requires you to purchase only organic foods, certain supplements, or memberships and plans that don’t even include the food, this can add up and hurt your wallet, too.

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QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

Still considering a fad diet? Stop and ask yourself the following questions and take a moment to answer them: 

  • Is the short-term benefit weighed against the long-term risks to my physical and mental health worth it? 
  • What are the credentials of the person promoting this diet? 
  • Does this diet appeal more to vanity than to how I feel in my body and mind? 
  • Is weight the only marker I measure my health by?
  • Do I measure my self-worth by the number I see on the scale? 
  • Does this diet take into account my taste, cultural food preferences, time, and budget
  • Can I eat this way for the rest of my life?

5 THINGS TO DO INSTEAD OF FAD DIETING

You now realize that a fad diet lends itself to a binary, narrow way of thinking about food and perhaps yourself and your health, too. 

Instead of a fad diet, incorporate the following five behaviors to boost your overall physical and mental health for the long term. 

What you eat is only one piece of the puzzle. Look at the rest of the picture.

1. Stay nourished

Practice balance, moderation, and variety with all the food groups to ensure adequate nutrition for optimal body function. 

  • Include more fruits and vegetables; whole grains; protein from animal sources, beans, lentils, peas, nuts, and seeds; dairy or fortified non-dairy alternatives; and fats or oils rich with omega-3 fats. 
  • Enjoy other foods, snacks, and alcohol in limits and moderation.
  • Eat a little less or a smaller portion instead of skipping a meal or treat so you don’t wind up overeating. 
  • For more nutrition information visit myplate.gov and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

2.  Stay mindful

Practice mindful eating. Slow down and be mindful of the whole eating experience — from meal preparation to the taste, smell, and texture of food. Train your mind to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. With this approach, you may find it easier to portion control, savor foods more, and choose foods with desirable health benefits (4, 5).

3.  Stay well hydrated

It is common for people to confuse thirst for hunger. Choose water as your main source of hydration. Your urine should look clear to light in color.

4. Stay active

The recommended amount of activity for adults is 150 minutes a week. You can start small with any activity you enjoy and break that time up into chunks.  The many benefits of physical activity go beyond weight management and include (6):

  • Boost brain, bone, heart, and muscle health.
  • Improved mental health. Reduced risk of anxiety and depression.
  • Lowers risk of falls.
  • Reduced risk of certain cancers and chronic diseases such as diabetes.
  • Improved quality of sleep. 

5.  Stay rested

Inadequate sleep is linked with weight gain, depression, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases (7).

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SET S.M.A.R.T. GOALS

The aforementioned behavior changes are more likely to turn into lifelong habits if you implement them into your life as small goals at a time.  Our brains do better with clear and specific directions, not vague ones. 

Set one or two S.M.A.R.T. goals at a time

S  =  SPECIFIC

M  =  MEASURABLE 

A  =  ACHIEVABLE 

R  =  REALISTIC

T  =  TIME-BOUND

Examples of S.M.A.R.T. goals

Over the next two weeks, I will not start my day empty. I will eat yogurt with nuts, cereal, oatmeal, or toast and egg for breakfast.

This month I will do a 30-minute walk or follow along with a workout on YouTube three times a week. 

I will set a reminder daily to pack my water bottle so I can stay hydrated and not confuse thirst for hunger.

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FINALS THOUGHTS

Fad diets may appear like a quick and easy solution for weight loss, but they don’t consider long-term health consequences, don’t account for personal preferences, and don’t follow the science. 

A shift in mindset from weight loss dieting to life-enhancing behaviors is a more reasonable and sustainable way to live.  

If you need a more individualized nutrition care plan, get help from a registered dietitian (RD).  An RD can help you set realistic goals, offer meal and grocery shopping tips that fit with your budget and lifestyle and guide you to overcome barriers to change.

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