Atkins, Zone, Weight Watchers, Paleo, South Beach, Slim Fast-all examples of fad diets.
Almost anyone looking for weight loss or a change in body composition has tried one or more of these at some point in their life. Is it a bad thing? No, not necessarily. Can you move toward your goals with these fad diets? Possibly. Can you maintain eating by their rules for the rest of your life (and stay mentally sane while doing so)? They’re called “fad diets” for a reason and here’s where it gets tricky….
Fad diets are not ALL bad, but they’re also not very sustainable. Sure, bell-bottoms and trucker hats were fun for a while, but truthfully, only a few people are disappointed they aren’t fashion staples. So, let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of these restrictive, highly-marketed diets.
What You CAN Learn from Fad Diets:
1 They’re a starting point—What comes along with fad diets? A set of rules; what to eat and what not to eat. Yes, at first it sounds great! I can only eat what I can hunt and gather? Sounds simple enough. Some people need this strict set of rules to get the ball rolling on their new journey. Packaged shakes to replace two meals? An easy start that doesn’t even require meal prep.
2 Portion control—Many of these diets outline portion control, either limiting number of calories per day or establishing appropriate sizes of foods for each meal. I’ll speak from experience: the Zone Diet taught me A TON about portion sizes and understanding what nutrient and nutrient amounts make up food. Understanding measurements and learning how to “eye-ball” or “hand measure” portions is a great skill and I won’t discredit many of these diets for helping teach that.
3 Experience new foods/recipes—Sometimes starting a new diet can introduce you to new foods and recipes. Searching for new foods that fit in with outlined rules can lead to more education about what macronutrients make up foods as well. How will you find high-protein foods without doing a bit of research? What healthy high-fat food can replace my afternoon Doritos? At times, these diets lead us to finding healthy foods that may became our new go-to snack.
What You CAN’T Learn from Fad Diets:
1 Guilt-free eating and balance—“Oh no, I just ate 5g of fat over my recommended daily intake. What do I do????” Well, let’s start with a few deep breaths and some woosahs. It’s really not the end of the world and the stress and anxiety over it is probably doing more harm than good (think: high cortisol, insulin resistance, loss of sleep, low energy, and the list goes on). When fad diets restrict certain types or groups of foods, you’re still exerting energy and causing stress with the efforts to avoid these foods. I’m not saying that certain foods shouldn’t be limited, but let’s think like this: if I say, “Don’t think about pizza”—what is the first thought that comes to mind?
2 How to individualize your nutrition needs and change the way you’re eating as your body changes—Fad diets are marketed to the masses. They’re supposed to help anyone and everyone lose weight. Unfortunately, these fad diets know nothing about you as an individual and often, the recommendations (other than sometimes calorie intake) do not change as your body changes. Yes, some of these diets teach you how to add back in the initially restricted foods, for example, adding back in carbs with the South Beach Diet. However, none of them are taking into account the individual changes you’re making with multiple measures (body fat %, measurements, weight, energy levels, etc). None of them are basing their nutrition recommendations off of performance, activity level, or any other form of feedback from you, the person looking for progress.
3 Social aspect of food—Dining can be a very social activity. People plan events around meals, use food and drink as a conversation topic, and typically dine with others on a daily basis and for multiple meals. Of course, any goal you set will involve some social changes, but if you find yourself completely disengaging from friends or standing on the outskirts of the party chewing sugar-free gum…well, that’s not where I’d want to be! The restrictions that come with fad diets can lead to decreased socialization and sometimes increased stress. Many people aren’t sure how to juggle a social life and their diet plan, so they feel forced to choose one over the other. Fad diets can neglect to teach how to balance this part of life, leading to people feeling like they’ve sabotaged their entire diet plan with a night out or choosing to be recluse to avoid “falling off the wagon”.
Fad diets can be an organized jump-start for someone looking to explore new foods or change the way they eat. However, for long-term change and progress, nutrition management focused on individualized education and recommendations that are based on frequent performance and body composition assessments is the better route.