Why Fad Diets Don’t Work

For an answer to this question, you need look no further than the definition of the word fad. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it as “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal: a craze.” The also-online-but-tongue-in-cheek Urban Dictionary defines fad even better, as “a thing that becomes very popular in a short amount of time, and then is forgotten at about the same speed.”

Fad diets don’t work because they’re ephemeral – they come and go as quickly as the #1 song on the radio, and they are designed to be short-lived. They appeal to the part of us that wants “quick fixes” to life’s problems, including having put on a few unwanted pounds. We watch TV or turn the pages in a glossy magazine, and sure enough there is a slim, attractive celebrity saying, “I lost 20 pounds in 20 days on the Sorghum Diet, and you can, too!” There may be research to confirm these claims: “Scientists at the University of P.O. Box 2000 found that 92.4% of the people in a controlled study lost an average of 23 pounds each on the Sorghum Diet.” These testimonials and claims sound enticing. They’re also misleading. The celebrities are getting paid handsomely to be spokespersons for these fad diets, and in many cases have never followed them in their lives. The “research” is often shoddy, or doesn’t exist – only claims of it exist.

Fad diets “work”… just not for long

The thing is, many fad diets DO work, in that they enable those following them to lose a few pounds in a short time. Any low-calorie diet can accomplish this, if followed diligently. But does the weight stay off, and is it healthy for your body if it does?

Sadly, the answer to both of these questions is often “No.” After a few weeks on a low-calorie diet (whether it is an all-protein diet, or a low-fat diet, or the Sorghum Diet) your body becomes starved for energy, and turns for that energy to stored body fat and muscle. It burns these stored reserves to survive. But the fact that the body feels that it is starving, and that it “needs” to survive causes a physiological reaction. Your basal metabolism drops, so that it burns calories less quickly. As your body burns fat and muscle to “survive” during this period, the weight you lose also includes the water stored in these tissues. As soon as you start eating normally again, the water is replaced and a portion of the weight loss disappears overnight. Unfortunately, the lost muscle does not get replaced, unless you exercise to promote its growth.

The “Yo-Yo” effect

The short-term weight loss one sees as a result of fad diets is all too often exactly that – short-term. One study has shown that while dieters on a popular low-calorie diet may have lost an average of 30 pounds in eight weeks, most of them regained an average of 11 pounds in the months following the study, and felt “hungrier and more preoccupied with weight” than ever. Yo-Yo dieting also strains your heart and organs, and compromises your immune system.

What DOES work?

The secret to healthful, long-term weight loss is not a secret, and has been known for years: permanently modify your eating habits. Long-term weight loss requires long-term changes. It has taken months or years to pack on those pounds. Don’t put your health at risk by believing that you can take them back off in weeks. Doctors and nutritionists tend to agree on what constitutes an effective, non-fad diet regimen:

• Think of it not as a diet but a way of life. The goal of a sensible diet plan is to become healthier and happier, not slimmer and miserable.

• Eat less, but more. That is, eat smaller portions, but of a greater variety of foods. A balanced diet should include lean protein, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beneficial fats from sources like fish, avocados, nuts, and olive oil. If you like the sight of more food on your plate, fill it up with salad and larger portions of fresh vegetables.

• Reduce your intake of “bad” fats. Saturated fats and trans fats aren’t just bad for your heart; they’re bad for weight loss, too.

• If you feel hungry between meals, eat more meals. Many people have had success with losing weight by eating more (but smaller) meals per day.

• Clean your kitchen shelves. Throw out the junk food and replace it on the shelves with healthier staples and snack foods. Replace your sweet snacks with dark berries such as blueberries and cherries, which are low in fat and calories but rich in antioxidants.

• Avoid empty calories. Try to eliminate sugary sodas and fruit drinks from your diet.

• Add exercise. A regular exercise program will raise your metabolism and enable it to burn calories more efficiently, facilitating weight loss. As you lose weight, you’re also going to be losing muscle mass, so exercise will help to promote new muscle growth.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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