Red Flags: How to Avoid a Fad Diet

In our society, dieting is the norm. Weight loss programs make up a multi-billion dollar industry encouraging Americans to jump on the next bandwagon and try the newest “fad” diet. While some of these dieting strategies are based on a string of truth, many are taken to extremes claiming speedy results often at the expense of health.

In March, we celebrate National Nutrition Month, which is the perfect time to focus on the benefits of nutritious foods and avoid the temptation to settle for a “quick fix”. This month, (and all year long) watch for these red flags of a “fad” diet:

1. Rapid Weight Loss

To get this point, you have to understand body composition. First of all, weight is not the only indicator of health. Yes, we look at weight to estimate disease risk, but we are ultimately concerned about body composition, or how much of your body is made up of muscle, water, bone, and of course, fat. Rapid weight loss is indicative of a loss in muscle, bone, or water, in other words, lean body mass – the stuff we don’t want to lose! Rather, a slow and steady weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week, protects lean body mass and promotes the loss of fat instead. Plus, slower weight loss is more sustainable and tends to stay off in the long run. Our bodies weren’t meant to change quickly. In this case, slow and steady wins the race.

2. Quantities, Limitations, and Rigid Menus

Many “fad” diets will suggest rigid menus with specific quantities of certain foods and limitations on others; however, research shows that eating a variety of foods from all food groups is important for health. Each food group performs a specific function in the body:

• Carbohydrate is the body’s primary energy source and also plays a role in making neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine that help control mood.
• Protein is the building block for muscles, bone, skin, and blood providing important nutrients such as iron and omega-3 fatty acids from seafood.
• Fruits and vegetables are high vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants to support immune function and prevent disease.
• Dairy provides calcium and vitamin D which are vital for bone health and reduce the risk of depression.
• Healthy fats support brain function, hormone and cell production, and nerve transduction as well as aid in the digestion of the fat soluble vitamins: A, D, E, K.

Restricting a food group throws the whole system off. Plus, I don’t know about you, but when I’m told that I can’t have something, suddenly that’s the only thing I want! If a diet requires you to NEVER eat your favorite foods, you’ll most likely end up wanting them more and you may even overindulge later. Quantities, limitations, and rigid menus also increase stress. Cortisol is the hormone released during stressful situations and it also causes your body to store fat! You can see how this type of dieting is not only unsustainable, but it’s actually counterproductive. Instead, eat a variety of foods from all food groups in moderation and without guilt. Life is stressful enough. Let’s try not to complicate things.

3. No need to Exercise

“Fad” diets will often claim that exercise isn’t necessary – an approach that is not backed by science. Exercise not only helps sustain weight loss, but also lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, and supports your immune system. Physical activity should go hand in hand with nutrition as a part of an overall healthy lifestyle.

Unfortunately, there are no foods or pills that magically burn fat while you sleep. Even “superfoods” while nutrient dense, are not “miracle” foods. A good rule of thumb is if a diet or product seems too good to be true, it probably is. Instead of falling for the false promises of a “fad” diet, take your health into your own hands and incorporate healthier habits into your daily lifestyle.

This National Nutrition Month, focus on variety, balance, and moderation. Your physical and mental health will thank you for it.

Elizabeth Hall, RDN, LDN
Food City Registered Dietitian
Twitter: @FCDietitian