Fad Diets - The Recap

I promised an update on my fad diets talk last week, and all I really got into was gluten-free. Oops! So here is a quick summary of what I talked about. There is not exhaustive by any means, but a look into some trends I've heard people are trying. 

To start, I would put most fad diets into one of three categories:

  • Pills and Supplements - take something to "burn fat" or as an "appetite suppressant"

  • Programs - companies that sell specific food products and/or offer a support system

  • Food Patterns - eat or avoid certain foods

The pills and supplements category is the most concerning for me. If you see one coming, run far, far away. Some examples of this are the HCG Diet, Garcinia Cambogia, Plexus Slim, and Hydroxycut. To start out with, there really isn't much science to suggest that these pills even work. The Mayo Clinic put together a review of some of these, and evidence is not favorable. 

Aside from being effective or not, some of these are known to be harmful. Side effects can include liver damage and heart problems (and many who are overweight or obese are at increased risk for heart problems, already). Then there's the fact that we don't really know what's in many of them. These products aren't under FDA regulation prior to being put on the market, meaning you can buy it with only limited proof of safety and effectiveness. The FDA can step in to ban or recall products, like ephedra, but by then damage has already been done. 

Long-term effectiveness is a serious concern with pills and supplements. You might drop weight on one of these plans. But they don't emphasize lifestyle changes, which means you haven't really figured out the issue or worked to prevent it in the future. And if you weren't exercising (the original HCG plan actually prohibits it!), you probably lost a lot of muscle, and now have a lower metabolism. Which means the pounds go back on more quickly.

Photo taken from RunWithWoot.com

Photo taken from RunWithWoot.com

Programs are another option. These include Weight Watchers, Ideal Protein, and Advocare. There are a lot of great things about programs, because so many of them include built-in support systems. There is someone to champion you, encourage your progress, and talk to when things get tough. Other members or participants are usually easy to access. There is a greater emphasis on lifestyle change, which means better long-term results.

However, there is a significant cost to these programs. Many of them require that you consume their food or products, at least in the beginning. This cost can really add up over time - thousands of dollars is not unrealistic.

There are a lot of "meal replacement" options in these programs, which means you're not eating real food. These products are usually very processed and are sweet flavored. The issue I take with the bars and shakes that are sweet, is that you're not changing your palette. You are actually incorporating sweet foods into your diet. Now, if you're having bars and shakes instead of cake and ice cream, you're at least getting some protein and vitamins and minerals. But if you stop the program and continue to crave sweet things, you may just go for a candy bar instead. Not helpful.

Another thing that makes me a little skeptical is that some of these programs have a multi-level-marketing element to them. Which means their goal is not just for you to use the products, but to sell them to your friends. Something to consider.

As I said, these programs aren't all bad. In fact, Weight Watchers is regularly rated among the top diets. But know what you're getting into financially before you start.

The last type of fad diet is the food patterns. Juicing, high-protein, Paleo, and gluten-free are all examples. It's hard to discuss all of these at once, since there are so many variations. But here are my overarching thoughts. 

First, they encourage real food, and real lifestyle changes. This is a major win in my book. These tend to be more focused on a way of living, rather than a crash diet, though there are plenty of extreme examples out there (Cabbage Soup and Grapefruit to name a couple). Paleo even encourages exercise, and is very popular in the cross-fit community.

Many of these diets cut out entire food groups, or they polarize certain nutrients. Fat, carbs, and protein have all been lauded and demonized. Dairy and grains are commonly cut out of current diets. This makes me concerned about long-term nutrient intake, especially calcium, iron, vitamin D and the B vitamins. It takes more effort to ensure a well-rounded, balanced diet when the rules are so strict.

So, what's the take-away? Do some research on a diet you're considering. Talk to a nutrition expert (i.e. a Registered Dietitian). Don't forget that medical school doesn't require much nutrition instruction. Physicians may have taken the time to learn more on their own, but just having that "MD" or "DO" after their name doesn't make them an expert on nutrition. However, you should talk to your physician about any other health issues you have and how a diet could help or hurt you.


Katie Goldberg

Katie Goldberg, MCN, RDN, LDN, has been a registered dietitian since 2013, but has always had a passion for good food and a healthy lifestyle. Katie earned her Master’s of Clinical Nutrition from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and has worked in private practice, higher education, in a clinical setting, and as an in-house dietitian for a food company. Whether it's at through large groups or one-on-one, Katie enjoys connecting people with easy and practical solutions for better health.