It seems that every few years a new dieting craze sweeps us up with promises of a more attractive figure and better overall well-being. Priya Kulasagaran looks at whether there is any merit to these fad diets, and if they can really replace the more sober advice of balanced meals and regular exercise
Whether it is lithe, pretty individuals posing serenely next to fresh organic produce on Instagram, or celebrities hawking the latest miracle product, weight-loss is definitely a focus in our society. It is not surprising then that the dieting industry is a billion-dollar enterprise, with many people falling prey to fad diets and snakeoil weight-loss products. Conflicting claims, testimonials and hype by so-called “experts” can confuse even the most informed consumers.
If a diet or product sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
What is a fad diet?
Generally speaking, a fad diet is a quick-fix regime that promises dramatic results for minimal effort. These diets tend to restrict your food choices and claim quick weight-loss, and are sometimes supported by dubious pseudoscience.
While many such diets are not actively harmful, they tend to be unsustainable, as their restrictive nature makes it hard for many people to adhere to in the long-term. Additionally, research indicates that people tend to pile the weight right back on after they end the diet, sometimes even binge-eating after depriving themselves during the dieting period.
A main characteristic of a fad diet, much like popular self-help books, is the claim of a ‘new’ and unusual way of eating. For example, some diets posit that a particular combination of foods will help dieters burn calories faster. However, there is currently no scientific evidence that the body processes – or even recognises – such combinations as different from a regular, balanced diet.
More popular diets tend to be those that advocate a high intake of protein and a lower intake of carbohydrates, with the aim of building muscle while losing weight. For some people, such diets can be dangerous, as the excess amount of protein can be a strain on the liver. While carbohydrates also tend to get a bad rap when it comes to trimming waistlines, the reality is that our bodies do still need them for energy – too low an intake may leave us feeling lethargic and lacklustre.
“Most people can lose weight on almost any diet plan that restricts calories, in the short term at least,” says nutritionist Pamela Ng. “But with fad diets, the long-term prognosis tends to not be so good; many people don’t just put the weight back on, but sometimes gain even more weight.”
Ng believes that such quick-fix solutions do not promote healthy eating plans for life. “Often, these sorts of diets tend to be boring, repetitive, and restrictive – which makes them difficult to follow. If you have a full-time job, family responsibilities, and a typical urban lifestyle, it can be very hard to stick to a highly regimented meal plan,” she says.
She adds that in some cases, fad diets can lead to more serious consequences. “I have seen clients whose bodies have gone into starvation mode; these are people who decided it would be a good idea to eat nothing but a few leaves of spinach and strips of chicken a day, and wash it down with some lemon juice – all in the name of cutting out carbs. If you consume too few carbs, which are also present in fruits, lentils and grains, the body then uses fat as a source of energy, which is good for weight loss. But if you carry on this way for too long, your energy levels will diminish dramatically,” says Ng.
Instead of shortcuts, Ng says the best way to lose weight is to reduce your calorie intake while maintaining a balanced diet, reduce the amount of refined and processed foods, eat more fruits and vegetables, and exercise more. “The same old boring advice any other nutritionist would give you really,” she jokes. “But really, that’s the ideal; make small, everyday changes, like walking for 10 minutes a day, or adding more leafy greens to your meals, and building on these changes slowly for the long-term.”
Things to look out for
Ng shared several tips for spotting a fad diet from a more sustainable meal plan:
- Quick and immediate weight-loss
“Slow, steady weight loss is more likely to last than dramatic weight changes,” says Ng. “A healthy plan should aim for losing no more than 1kg every week. If you lose weight too fast, you’ll lose muscle and water – and be likely to regain the weight just as quickly.”
- Unlimited quantities or too many restrictions
Ditch diets that allow unlimited quantities of any food, such as grapefruit and cabbage soup. Likewise, avoid any diet that eliminates or severely restricts entire food groups, such as carbohydrates. “If it’s monotonous, it will be hard to stick to; and if you’re only eating one type of food, you’re likely missing out other important nutrients. Just ask yourself if you’re prepared to eat this way for the rest of your life,” says Ng.
- Promises of no exercise
“If I see this, I will immediately distrust it,” says Ng. “If you want to maintain a healthy weight, build muscle and lose fat, the best path is a lifelong combination of eating smarter and moving more.”
- Special meals, supplements, or injections
“If a diet requires special and expensive ‘add-ons’ like supplements or injections to work, do look at the people running the programme as well as their qualifications,” advises Ng. “Look at whether there is any scientific basis for any of these supplements, and do check them with a medical doctor before taking any such products.