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Fad Diets: Why They Are Bad & How To Spot Them | Diet & Nutrition

Posted Sep 26 2008 3:21pm 1 Comment

Fad diets promise miracle results, but can they really deliver? Learn the telltale signs of a fad diet and why the “latest diet craze” could be bad for you.

Open up a magazine, turn on the television or browse the Internet and it’s hard to avoid stumbling across the next “miracle diet”.  From the Master Cleanse to Atkins to South Beach to the Cabbage Soup Diet, there are literally hundreds of popular fad diets competing for your attention (and often dollars.)

Some fad diets, like the Grapefruit Diet, are attractive to dieters because of their simplicity: Drink grapefruit juice with your meals and watch the fat burn away. Others, like Atkins, The Zone Diet or South Beach, are more complicated — requiring you to buy a book and spend hours memorizing lists of what you can and can’t eat on the diet.

But do fad diets work? And if they do, at what cost to your health (and taste buds?)

Fad Diet Statistics: How Prevalent Is It?

The statistics around fad dieting are revealing.

The  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  estimate that at any given time two-thirds of all American adults are on a diet to either lose weight or prevent weight gain. Of those, 29 percent are men and 44 percent women. Yet only 5 percent of these dieters will be successful at keeping the weight that they lost off.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that each day Americans spend an average of $109 million on dieting or diet related products, including tapes, videos, supplements, books, foods, and medications – or over $34 billion a year. 

Yet, for all of the money spent on diets and diet products, another set of statistics shows Americans overall aren’t losing weight. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, overweight and obesity has reached epidemic levels, afflicting 6 out of every 10 adults, and is the second leading cause of preventable death, resulting in 300,000 deaths per year.

So if Americans are dieting more, why do we keep getting fatter? With all of the claims that fad diets make around “losing weight and keeping it off” you’d think everyone would look like a fitness model. 

So what’s going on?

The Definition of a Fad Diet

First, it’s important to understand that “fad diet” is a subjective term. So any definition of a fad diet will be up for debate. 

The literal dictionary definition of a “fad diet” is “a diet that promises quick weight loss and is popular for a short time.” However, I’ve broadened the definition here to include any diet that has received extensive media attention or has generated underground or popular culture buzz.  For example, Barry Sear’s Zone Diet wouldn’t qualify as a dangerous crash diet — but it certainly has generated enough on-and-off attention over the years to qualify as a “fad.”

Many fad diets undergo a cycle of extreme interest, followed by a period of dormancy, and then a resurgance.  In other words, fad diets don’t die, they just burn-out and then often return a decade later, promising weight-loss salvation to an entirely new generation of frustrated, serial dieters.

The Difference Between Fad Diets and “Crash Diets

A “crash diet” is a type of diet that aims to produce very rapid weight loss in an extremely short period of time — often in less than 3-7 days. Crash diets almost always operate on extreme calorie restriction. Not all fad diets are “crash diets”, but all crash diets qualify as fad diets.

Spotting a Fad Diet

It’s not difficult to spot a fad diet if you know what to look for. Nearly all fad diets have certain characteristics that allow you to spot one quickly. While a fad diet will not necessarily have all of these characteristics, it will typically share at least three or more of the following:

  • Claims of dramatic weight loss in short periods of time (typically in excess of 3 lbs a week)
  • Reductions in overall calorie intake, often at or below 1000 calories total for the day
  • Elimination of entire groups of foods or macro-nutrients (carbs, sugars, fats, fruit, bread, etc.) from the diet
  • Over-emphasis on consuming certain macro-nutrients (protein, for example) in the diet
  • Substitution a single food (grapefruit, lemon juice, cabbage soup, Special K Cereal) in place of normal whole meals
  • Lists of “good” and “bad” foods
  • Very little, if any, emphasis on exercise as part of the weight loss plan or diet
  • Emphasis on extremely short dieting intervals, for example, “24 hour diet,” “3-day diet” or “7 day diet.”
  • Claims that the diet will change body chemistry, overcome hormonal imbalances, or “fix” specific conditions that cause you to gain weight
  • Use of complex scientific studies with simplistic conclusions to support the “science” of the diet
  • Use of dramatic marketing language and too-good-to-be-true phrases like “quick-fix”, “melt off pounds instantly,” “lose fat fast”,  “lose weight when you sleep,” “eat all you want and lose weight!” etc.
  • Recommendations to purchase products as part of the diet, for example: supplements, herbal blends, protein or nutrition bars, health drinks, etc.
  • Inclusion of laxatives as part of the diet
  • Claims about “detoxification” associated with the diet
  • Association with a popular celebrity or prominent company or organization
  • Excessive media attention, especially in tabloid newspapers
  • Circulated via e-mail, word-of-mouth or the web with no clear indication of its origin 
  • A price tag: Many fad diets require you to fork over money to access the diet or buy the book

This list is obviously very broad and inclusive, and not all diets that have these characteristics are necessarily unsafe or ineffective. 

For example, even legitimate diets can become associated with a celebrity and attract a lot of media and press attention. However, as a rule of thumb, the more of the above characteristics the diet has, the more likely it qualifies as a “fad diet.”

The Anatomy of a Fad Diet

Fad diets are attractive to people for a number of different reasons.



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Comments (1)
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Just saw a mention of this article at, another great site with resources for health and wellness. Great information and statistics. I wonder...if the diet books were required to post the percentage of people that successfully accomplish their diet goals (compared to the number that start and then stop) using their program, would they sell as many books? I think that should be required like food is required to carry a nutrition label. Become a fan of thebelist and start living a healthier life, free of diets!
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