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Fad Diets

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Several claims have been made in the print and visual media about losing weight fast and maintaining a low weight with the help of a specific diet. These are called fad diets. There are several diets and tools but their quality and efficacy may vary from being completely ineffective to being harmful.

Examples of fad diets include ones that:-

  • Ban a specific food or food group
  • Suggest eating a particular food or food group only to change the body chemistry
  • Suggest hormone change as the reason for weight gain and seek to change it

Some of the popular fad diets include:-

  • High-protein, high fat, low carbohydrate diets

These diets are typically low in calcium, fibre, and plant proteins. Examples include The South Beach Diet, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, The Grapefruit Diet, also called the Magic Mayo Diet or Mayo Clinic Diet, The 3-Day Diet, The Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, Dr. Sears’ Enter the Zone Diet etc.

The Atkins Diet advocates high protein, high fat diet with low carbohydrates. One of the major problems with this diet, apart from the dangers of high protein diets, is that it places no limit on the amount of saturated-fat-laden products. This raises risk of heart disease. Large portions of food like butter, red meat and bacon are allowed in this diet.

  • High-carbohydrate, high fibre diets that contain low levels of protein and fat

This includes diets like the Pritikin Diet Plan, Save-Your-Life Diet etc. High carbohydrate diets may lead to complications like low immunity and poor wound healing.

  • Liquid diets

These claim to supply all nutrients needed at a controlled calorie level of around 400 calories. Examples include Liquid Formula Preparations, Cambridge Diet (Protein-Sparing Modified Fast) etc.

  • Other diets

Other miscellaneous varieties of diets include Cider Vinegar, Lecithin, Vitamin B6 Diet, Kelp, Zen Macrobiotic Diet etc. These diet plans encourage eating only one food, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

  • Diet pills, diuretics (water pills) and laxatives

Losing weight by these methods may work for rapid and quick weight loss, in the form of water, but they are extremely unhealthy. These may lead to complications such as dehydration, weakness, and dizziness and may also lead to nutrient deficiencies and kidney damage.

  • Diet aids

Examples include pills and preparations like Dexatrim, Caffeine Pills, Ephedrine pills, Phen/Fen pills etc. There is no scientific data to support claims that weight loss from diet aids is permanent. These are mainly appetite suppressants and may cause heart problems.

Myths regarding fad diets

Some of the myths regarding typical fad diets that have been popular off and on include:-

  • Fad diets do not help one lose weight and keep it off in the long run - fad diets are not the best way to lose weight. These diets often promise quick weight loss especially if they are low calorie and a person sticks to them strictly. These may help lose weight at first. However, these diets are difficult to stick to and most do not lead to long term weight loss.
  • It is a myth that skipping a meal may help lose weight. Skipping meals may only serve to make one hungrier and lead to overeating at the next meal. People who skip breakfast especially tend to be heavier than people who eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Fad diets may be unhealthy – these diets often do not provide all the nutrients essential for survival. Further rapid weight loss of over 3 pounds a week after the first few weeks increases risk of complications like gall stones and ketosis. Being on a diet of fewer than 800 calories a day for a long time may also lead to heart problems. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel and energy. Low carb high protein diets are thus particularly harmful. There are basically two types of carbohydrates – simple comprising of sugars and complex, comprising of starches and fibres. Foods that are high in complex carbohydrates like fruits, whole grains, vegetables etc. are recommended.
  • It is a wrong notion that healthy eating needs to be expensive. Eating better may sometimes be less expensive than unhealthy eating. Many people think that fresh foods are healthier than canned or frozen ones. However, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables are just as healthy and may be a low cost option. These however need to be rinsed to remove the excess salt.
  • Fad diets including “Low-fat” or “fat-free” foods – it is not true that all fad diets that recommend low fat or fat free foods can be low in calories. Many processed low-fat or fat-free foods have just as many calories as the full-fat versions of the same foods or may have more calories. These foods may contain added flour, salt, starch, or sugar to improve the flavour and make it tastier.
  • Weight loss may occur in some individuals even without following a healthy diet – a healthy or unhealthy fad diet without sufficient expenditure of calories in the form of regular physical exercise fails to reduce body weight. People who seem to lose weight despite eating everything are probably spending more energy exercising and in physical activity to keep from putting on weight.
  • Fast foods need not be unhealthy – although many fast foods are unhealthy, a wise choice of these foods may be included in diet. Small portion size, nutrient rich and low in calories foods may be chosen for optimum diet plans. For example, a fresh fruit item or a non-fat yogurt for dessert is a good option. Toppings are best avoided. These include extra cheese, bacon, mayonnaise, salad dressings, tartar sauce, chocolate sauce etc. Further steamed or baked items may be chosen over fried ones. Instead of sugary and fizzy drinks, water or fat free milk items may be chosen.
  • Meat is not harmful for health. Eating lean meat in small amounts can be healthy in fact. Chicken, fish, pork, and red meat are rich in cholesterol and fats but they are also rich in iron, protein, and zinc.
  • Similarly dairy products need not be fattening and unhealthy. A low fat option may be a part of a healthy diet.
  • Vegetarianism as a fad diet does not ensure weight loss and healthy eating in all individuals.

How to identify a fad diet

Some characteristics of a fad diet include:-

  • It claims quick weight loss of more than 1-2 pounds per week. A quick loss usually means a quick regain of the lost weight as well
  • Suggests miracle foods or diet pills or foods that “melt the fat away” without exercising.
  • Suggests special food combinations or recommends large quantities of a particular food while eliminating some other food or food groups.
  • Inflexible and rigid food menus.
  • Based on recommendations from a single study that may have been wrongly interpreted or simplistically interpreted.
  • Recommends the purchase of a certain product to help lose weight.

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further reading

Last Updated: Apr 10, 2013

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