What you need to know about fad diets

Focus on making healthy lifestyle changes. Eating a variety of foods to ensure that you get all your daily nutrients.

What is a fad diet? How do you define it? What are the characteristics? A fad diet is a weight loss plan or diet aide that promises dramatic results in a short period of time. Often developed by celebrities or medical professionals who call themselves weight loss gurus, these may result in short-term weight loss but typically do not result in long-term weight loss. Fad means short-lived (followed by the word fade) and may be dangerous to your health.

Topping the list of most popular fad diets include: low carb, high protein diet, high fat diet (Keto), low fat and very low fat diets, unlimited quantities of certain foods diet, raw foods diet, and the gluten-free diet.

Why don’t they last? Many fad diets do work for a short time. By eliminating food groups, we are paying more attention to food. Much of the weight loss, however, is from water weight and lean tissue, not fat. Most folks are unable to keep up with the demands of the diet, and consequently, tend to regain the weight that they initially lost. Dieting can be draining physically, emotionally, and financially.

How to recognize fad diets? News flash: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Many make rapid weight loss claims (10 pound loss per week), allow for unlimited quantities of certain foods (i.e., cabbage soup diet), recommend specific food combinations and rigid menus, and are promoted as a “cure-all” and use testimonials (i.e., celebrities, before and after photos, etc.).

Fad diets are so popular because: 1) People are interested in rapid weight loss; 2) Many of them do work for a short amount of time; and 3) By eliminating whole food groups, we end up consuming fewer calories.

What are problems with fad diets? 1) Diets are very limited, not meeting body’s basic needs – lacking essential nutrients (such as vitamins A, E, D, B, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and fiber). 2) Dieting messes up our hunger signals, making it difficult to recognize our bodies’ internal cues. This may lead to preoccupation with food, increased cravings, or inability to focus. Other problems include: fad diets are not palatable (i.e., low fat diet), inflexible, not allowing for deviation from the plan. Let’s face it, how much bacon can we really eat? Some may be dangerous to our health, for example, the raw foods diet encourages intake of raw meat and seafood, increasing our risk for foodborne illness. Also, consider that a high protein diet may raise blood uric acid levels, which can adversely affect bone tissue, depleting the body of calcium via urine. Diets are expensive, averaging $33 billion per year, for example, the HCG diet will cost you $800/month. Much of the initial weight loss comes from water weight (and lean body mass), not fat loss. Also, diets tend to slow metabolism! (via consuming fewer calories overall).

How should you diet? “Diets” form the basis of our everyday food choices. We need less emphasis on diet, more on lifestyle habits. Rather than focusing on losing weight, focus on being healthy to improve overall feeling of wellness. Some of the best approaches include the USDAs My Plate – emphasizes balance and variety! Also DASH diet (supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) – has been shown to improve blood pressure, rich in magnesium, potassium, calcium, and fiber and low in sodium and fat, cholesterol and sugar. A healthy weight loss translates into a loss of ½ lb to 1 lb per week. The optimal diet for weight loss will maximize loss of body fat while minimizing loss of lean body mass; it will also promote satiety (feeling of fullness), reduce our risk of chronic disease, and be convenient, palatable, and inexpensive.

What foods should we focus on? Increase intake of fruits, vegetables (high in antioxidants!), and whole grains, low-fat dairy products; decrease intake of prepackaged processed foods, sodium, fats and added sugars. Boost intake of heart-healthy fats including nuts, avocado, olive & canola oil, and fatty fish. Also, water is essential for weight loss for abating hunger and boosting metabolism (note: exercise is still the #1 way to increase metabolism).

How do I lose weight?

• Don’t take diet pills, including over-the-counter pills. These are expensive and will not produce long-term weight loss.

• Focus on making healthy lifestyle changes. Eating a variety of foods to ensure that you get all your daily nutrients. Examples: eating breakfast, not skipping meals, drinking less soda or juice (more water!), watching portion sizes, reading food labels, increasing physical activity, and incorporating nutritious foods into your diet with less fat, sugar, and alcohol.

• Recognize that it takes hard work. A pound of fat = 3,500 calories. Create a daily calorie deficit – coupled with moving more to create 500 kcal deficit per day. Calories do count.

• Be mindful. Focus on small changes. Drink one less soda per day, switch from whole milk to 2% milk, and consider mixing cereals and pasta, rice, incorporating more whole grains with less refined sugars.

• Focus on more than just the number on the scale. How is your clothing fitting? Success is measured by multiple non-scale victories that are important to recognize and acknowledge.

Resources for Consumers:

UW Health website (www.uwhealth.org) – Schedule an appt with a UW Health Dietitian


Consider healthy diets such as Mediterranean/DASH diet and Weight Watchers

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