The History of Dieting Fads
Ever since the rise of sedentary jobs and weight-gain from lack of activity,
people have been looking for easy, fast ways to lose weight by changing
the way they eat. From the Hollywood actress-inspired grapefruit diet
in the 1930s, to the Atkins low-carb diet in the 1970s to modern trends
like “cleanses,” fad diets have become a powerful part of
our pursuit of health in America.
But they don’t work.
UCLA once took a look at 31 different food and diet studies that lasted
2-5 years. In 2007, they concluded that 30-60% of all dieters regained
all of the weight they lost, and even gained a little more! Despite nearly
a century of popularity, fad diets have never seemed to make people healthier,
and in fact can lead to an unhealthy obsession with weight loss rather
than a focus on healthy choices.
One truly horrifying fad diet in the 1950s has experienced a recent revival: using
tapeworms to induce weight loss. Just 2 years ago, an Iowa woman went to her doctor
and admitted that she had ordered a tapeworm pill on the internet. The
fad has even picked up traction in Hong Kong. The tapeworm diet is an
extreme example of the problem with many fad diets: they may cause weight
loss, but they are at best inconvenient and untenable—and at worst,
truly harmful to dieters.
Reason #1: Fad Diets Offer the Wrong Kind of Weight Loss
Let’s get this out of the way: a lot of fad diets are popular are
because they work—for a few weeks or months. People lose 10-15 pounds
fairly quickly (just like the advertisements promise), but that’s
all you receive. Your diet may be dropping weight off of you, but it may
not be fat. Weight loss could be a loss of fiber, a loss of lean muscle,
or even simple water loss.
That’s because fad diets are, by and large,
deprivation diets. There’s no quick-fix fad diet that can promise you significant
and a balanced and complete intake of nutrients. That’s why most diets
you’ll hear about make a bad guy (or a savior) out of particular
ingredients or macronutrients. No starches, no carbs, only grapefruit
or acai berries—these are the dietary restrictions many people will
subject themselves to on a run-of-the-mill fad diet.
Will eating less starch and carbs (or only grapefruit) help you lose weight?
So would starvation. Subjecting yourself to strict food restrictions won’t provide you
with long-term health. It will only starve your body of the balanced amount
of nutrients it needs, creating long-term health problems. Be very skeptical
of any diet that overemphasizes or vilifies a particular type of food.
Reason #2: Fad Diets Are Impractical
Actress and health celebrity Suzanne Somers has offered a very popular
type of diet plan for years. The diet plan requires dieters to eat food
in groups, and includes rules such as “if you eat food with protein,
wait 3 hours before eating carbohydrates” or “only eat fruit
on an empty stomach.” These rules might result in short-term weight
loss, but what kind of flexibility does it provide? Is this a plan that
the average person can maintain?
Most diets work because they limit the times and ways that you can eat
to a very strict routine. But if your weight can only be lessened through
body-manipulative and military-precise eating habits, then it’s
unlikely that it can be kept up for years. Even if your diet promises
some kind of freedom with
what you eat, it likely restricts very heavily
how much you eat—which results in the same problem.
Reason #3: Fad Diets Make Dieters More Susceptible to Weight Gain
When you suddenly deny your body the food it craves, whether it’s
bread, pasta, or dairy, you’re potentially increasing your cortisol
levels (based on the strength of the craving). Cortisol is the “stress”
hormone, which releases glucose into the blood for immediate use by your
large muscle groups. It also inhibits insulin processing, causing “insulin
resistance,” the central problem of Type 2 diabetes.
Heightened cortisol levels conditions your body to develop visceral (under
the muscle) fat, starves your cells of glucose, and forces your body to
send constant hunger signals to the brain—which prompts overeating.
Now, if you can resist your cravings, cortisol levels subside and you
become more accustomed to your lifestyle, reducing your likelihood to
Remember, however, that fad diets are meant to be temporary. Which means
once your diet is finished and you reach your goal weight, you’ll
begin responding to your increased cortisol with
increased eating. Studies show that 83% of dieters tend to regain their weight after a
fad diet, but that’s not the only problem. Fad dieting also leads
to a problem known as “weight cycling,” which is when your
body loses and gains weight over and over again. Ironically, weight cycling
from fad diets causes your body to gain weight more quickly and easily,
independent of your body’s genetics.
That means even if you lose 20 pounds every time you diet, you’ll
gain that 20 back (and then some) a little easier every time. Eventually,
you’ll end up heavier than you ever were while on fad diets.
So If Not a Fad Diet, What Then?
It’s like your mom and your coach always told you: eat healthy food
in balanced amounts, and exercise. The point is not to lose weight—it’s
to lead a life where weight naturally stays off of you because you use
the energy that you intake. Your body and your lifestyle requires
balance, not deprivation. If you want carbohydrates, eat complex carbs that have
a low glycemic load: sweet potatoes, acorn squash, or barley (instead
of rice). If you want sugar, eat fruit and yogurt, and avoid manufactured
Honestly, weight loss doesn’t have to be dramatic to have amazing
results. Just 5-10% loss of your body weight will result in a stronger
heart, rid yourself of pre-diabetic risks, reduce strain on your blood
vessels and posture, help your breathing, and result in a more comfortable
body overall. Attempting to lose 60 pounds in 3 months will only result in
Preparing to run a 5k or choosing to eat pineapples instead of ice cream
is what will lead to weight loss, not following a strict trendy diet—and
it’s more fun for you! Base your journey on health accomplishments
like pushups, mile times, and strength gain, and you’ll experience
more fulfilling, enjoyable, and effective weight-loss!
This article contains general information about medical conditions and
treatment. This information is not to be treated as medical advice. Inquiries
about your health should be consulted with a healthcare provider.