What are they?
Why are they so prevalent?
And why don’t they work?
A fad diet is defined as a weight reduction strategy that either eliminates one or more of the essential food groups or recommends consumption of one type of food in excess at the expense of other foods. They rarely follow sound nutritional principles for weight loss and usually focus solely on fewer calories or expending more energy through exercise (1). And who among us hasn’t stumbled upon one of these “get thin quick” gimmicks online or heard from a friend of a friend that cutting “XYZ” entirely from their diet led to a staggering amount of weight loss? On top of that, add in the explosion of health/fitness influencers on social media touting their latest diet and fitness regimes and I for one will be the first to say; It is exhausting!
And why are we so willing to keep trying these diets and take these recommendations so readily?
It is because fad diets tend to appeal more to people’s vanity than to their desire to stay healthy (2). The focus on inches and pounds is less complicated and more satisfying than for example, reducing the risk of diabetes or heart disease (2). I would be remiss if I did not reflect on how emotionally charged the topic of weight loss is. For so many people, the thought of it brings a feeling of anxiety, insecurity, and frustration. Therefore, it is only natural that our instinct would be to lean towards the easiest/shortest term solution to resolve those uncomfortable feelings. And then there is the increasingly insidious notion of “Diet Culture” which pervades our society and further promotes the idea of ‘skinny above all’. It’s a topic so pervasive and complex that I’ll have to save that topic for a future blog post, but please take the time to check out this link for some insight: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/recognizing-and-resisting-diet-culture. Finally, fad diets promise to de-mystify the weight loss process with almost immediate results. Many of them are restrictive and regimented which lessens the dieter’s anxiety about the process and provides a sense of control. Almost all of them make claims of rapid weight loss and then “back it up” with convincing testimonials from people of all age ranges, demographics etc.
Typically, this is how it all goes, (coming from a point of personal experience). The dieter finds themself either purging their entire refrigerator/cupboard of the fad diet’s labelled “bad” foods that aren’t permitted on the new plan and/or spending a large amount of money purchasing all of the foods necessary to the new diet. In most cases, this will also include a new “miracle” supplement/herb/energy drink/bar etc. The new diet starts Monday (of course) and typically the dieter white-knuckles through week one with a few stomach aches here and raging hunger pangs there but overall it’s deemed a success because the dieter has been able to “stick” with the plan. The first weekend is typically spent alone because social interaction puts the dieter in a position of not be able to plan their own menu and/or tempted by alcohol, snacks or anything other than what is on their restrictive plan. Week two starts out fine enough but then what happens? REAL LIFE! Someone has a birthday party, or a bridal shower or a significant other that decides to make them dinner and the dieter decides to take a small detour from their regimented plan. Afterwards, guilt ensues but ultimately the dieter resolves to “get back on track” the following day, and that’s where the dieter’s days begin to get labelled as either a “good” day or a “bad” day with all of the negative connotations that come with that. Week 3 is where the dieter begins to lose steam. The restrictive food list that they have committed to begins to feel repetitive and boring. In many cases, the new products that they have purchased have run out and need replacing ($$$). Isolating themselves from social events or time with friends has lost its appeal and just does not seem worth it anymore. Slowly all the new commitments begin to fall to the wayside.
Now, aside from the obstacles that get in the way from a lifestyle perspective. Let’s take a look at what’s happening on a biological level. The first week typically sees the dieter losing water weight. That is because when the dieter restricts calories/carbohydrates, or both, the first source of energy our bodies will burn is glycogen (3). Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored in the liver and muscles and attached to every gram of glycogen is water (3). Therefore, less carbohydrates equals less water. The first few pounds in that ‘exciting’ first week of the diet is typically just water weight. As the diet progresses, the restriction of macronutrients (carbs/protein/fat) starts to interfere with the dieter’s insulin and blood sugar levels, causing headaches, muscle weakness and fatigue which only make it more unpleasant and difficult to adhere to. From a hormonal perspective, Leptin is one of the most important hormones that oversees appetite regulation. It is produced by our body’s fat cells and its main role is long-term regulation of energy, including the number of calories we eat and expend, as well as how much fat we store in our body (4). Think of it as the hormone that tells our brain when we’re hungry and when we’re full. The stress of yo-yo dieting and continuous losing/re-gaining weight is just one of many factors that may contribute to what is called Leptin Resistance. Leptin resistance is a state in which our brain does not receive the leptin signal that tells it that we’re full. When it doesn’t receive this signal, our brain thinks that our body is hungry, and therefore encourages behaviours that will prevent starvation such as eating more and moving less (6, 7), which make the fad diet feel even more impossible. Finally, let’s add to all of that the fact that as the dieter rapidly loses weight, they will inevitably lose muscle mass. Lower amounts of muscle mass lead to a lower metabolic rate (the process by which your body converts what we eat/drink into energy) (8). A slower metabolic rate equals slowed weight loss. As you can see, it’s so much more complex than just limiting caloric intake! Our bodies have mechanisms in place that actively try to thwart our attempts at losing large amounts of body weight.
So, let’s get back to our dieter. Week 4 was just too much! Exhausted and in a state of hormonal upheaval they’ve thrown in the towel. Rather than blaming their failed diet efforts on all the factors listed above that were for the most part out of their control, the dieter has turned inward and blamed themself. They’re frustrated with their lack of willpower and their self-esteem takes a huge hit.
This blog post just brushes the surface on some of the many reasons why fad diets fail but doesn’t dive into the upsetting emotional and negative psychological toll that they have on so many people.
Now where does this leave us?
If you’ve made it this far, it’s my hope that you’ve learned a thing or two about why fad diets fail. If weight loss is still a goal for you, and you’re unsure of where to start, I hear you and I’m here for you. It is about so much more than just calories in versus calories out. We do not exist in a vacuum, and each one of us is a dynamic and complex human being with differing genetic profiles and hormonal balances. We have varying food sensitivities, stress levels, sleep patterns and exercise abilities, all of which play a role in weight gain and weight loss. As a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant, it is my job to assess your entire lifestyle from this Holistic standpoint (diet, lifestyle, mindset, environment, ability) as a means to help to meet your long-term goals; whether that be weight loss or not. Please reach out with any questions or if an individualized nutritional assessment is something that you could benefit from!
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