FOOD FICTION! How To Spot A Fad Diet

If you’ve been a BBR girl for a while, or simply followed the journeys of Rachel, Emma and other girls from the Bodies by Rachel team, you’ve probably noticed that balance is a recurring theme in all recommendations! To achieve fabulous results and see consistent, sustainable improvements in your wellbeing, mood and physique, you don’t have to spend endless hours at the gym or restrict your dietary intake…

…or do you?

But what about those “magic” diets and supplements that promise unbelievable progress, quick? After all, some of them have cult following and are actively endorsed by public figures of all walks of life, from movie stars (hey, Gwyneth) to medical practitioners (cheers, Dr. Davis).

Nutrition noise is real, and it’s deafening! Unless you have a nutrition background and access to relevant evidence, it can be very difficult to separate facts from fiction – however, if you’re equipped with the right tools, you will soon navigate this information like a pro!

There is a lot to cover in the nutrition noise space, and today, I would like to specifically focus on an aspect that pops up a lot in the fabulous BBR community: fad diets, how to spot them, and why we recommend avoiding them.

What is a fad diet?

Although there is no uniform definition, generally the term “fad diet” describes a popular meal plan that has gained cult following due to promises of rapid weight loss and/or other health advantages. Oftentimes, fad diets are highly restrictive both in the amount of energy allowed for consumption and in the kinds of foods that one should consume. It’s not unusual for the entire food groups to be eliminated, without backing by any solid evidence! Another common feature of a fad diet is inclusion of compulsory products and ingredients that are often unusual and expensive.

Those very characteristics are what makes fad diets attractive for many people. After all, if something is:

  • Endorsed by your favourite celebrity;
  • Promises rapid results;
  • And includes magical ingredients,

…why not give it a go? After all, what do you have to lose? Actually, A LOT – and I wish I was talking about excess fat!

Dangers of fad diets

Because the defining feature of fad diets is cutting out key foods and/or cutting your energy supply short, you can experience a multitude of side effects, such as:

  • Fatigue and weakness – not enough strength to carry out your normal daily tasks, and killer gym sessions will be impossible!
  • Headaches and nausea – which may be related to overall weakness or be secondary to dehydration and nutrient deficiencies.
  • Gastrointestinal issues – such as constipation from limited intake or diarrhea induced by “miracle” supplements.
  • Inadequate intake of essential macro- and micronutrients, which can seriously damage your health.

Needless to say, fad diets can leave behind lots of damage, such as triggering eating disorders or even leading to death in extreme cases.

Pretty scary stuff, isn’t it? Right now, you may be thinking whether you might actually be on a fad diet – and it’s easy to check using my handy checklist below!

Fad diet checklist

Before we dive into the checklist, let me make something very clear: this information is not provided to you to promote any particular way of eating! Rather, I want to give you a tool to help decide whether a nutrition makeover you’re considering is worth committing to and can it potentially have damaging consequences. We’re all different, so do whatever rocks your cheerful boat – just make sure you’re safe on your journey!

With that in mind, this is the thought process to use when assessing a new diet you want to try:

  • Does it promise a quick fix? Because fad diets sure do! “Lose 10 kg in a week” kind of stuff is almost guaranteed to be a fad, unless you’re ringing up a plastic surgeon office. On average, sustainable and healthy weight loss doesn’t exceed 1 kg per week, even less if you’re building muscle simultaneously. If the process is suspiciously quick, it’s often either water weight or your body nomming on those hard-earned muscles due to being starved!
  • Is it based around a magic supplement or a certain food item? If it does (remember Garcinia Cambogia? Spoiler alert: it’s useless), it’s surely a fad. No magic supplement exists that can change body chemistry to the point fad diet promoters advertise. Use common sense: if it’s too good to be true, it probably is, otherwise everyone would be on those “perfectly safe” magic supplements already.
  • Does it exclude or severely restrict entire food groups or macronutrients? If so, you’re almost guaranteed to be dealing with a fad. It doesn’t help that restrictive diets such as paleo or raw-only often seem to work, but it’s usually not because of the claims they make, and simply due to cutting out processed foods and including plenty of fresh produce. As such plans are not nutritionally balanced, following them for prolonged periods can seriously damage your health.
  • Does it promise to “detoxify” or “purify”? Repeat after me: unless you’re ill, your body doesn’t need any “detoxing”, that’s why you have organs such as liver and kidneys – and they do their job amazingly! The whole concept of detoxing is not supported by science, so don’t fall for it.
  • Does it report fabulous results based on a single “clinical trial”? Oftentimes, the said trial is sponsored by the diet provider and is incredibly biased. You may not always be able to check that, but in many jurisdictions,  it’s required to list the source of evidence if such claims are made. If you get your hands on the study paper, look for the “Conflict of interest” section of the paper for the juicy gossip you’re after.
  • In addition to those defining points, I personally also don’t recommend relying on plans that get you hooked on a particular range of products (e.g. pre-packed meals) without providing basic education on nutrition principles. These are not necessarily “true fads”, but if you don’t learn how to identify, buy and prepare wholesome foods without prompts, you won’t sustain the lifestyle after your subscription runs out!

    Fads vs restrictions

    Not every restriction is necessarily a fad – some medical conditions, as well as ethical considerations, warrant special eating plans!

    A few examples:

    • Whilst following keto is a valid therapeutic tool for the treatment of certain types of seizures, following it with no medical indication isn’t any more beneficial compared to general healthy nutrition, is hard to follow and can cause health complications, meaning the benefits may not be worth the risks. It also required strict adherence, which is not viable for most. We need much more research on this before drawing conclusions on long-term consequences, so in the meantime, I would not recommend it long-term!
    • Not all voluntary restrictions should be classified as fads – for instance, if you decide to follow a plant-based diet for ethical reasons, you’re only cutting out certain types of foods, which can be substituted within the same food groups. Or if you’re on an intermittent fasting protocol, you’re not tweaking anything about the content of your food – it’s just about the timing!
    • Whilst a strict gluten-free diet is essential for those diagnosed with Coeliac disease, for most individuals cutting out gluten is unnecessary but not dangerous as such. However, if you follow a poorly backed-up ideology, it can be considered a fad.  

    In other words, it’s all about critical thinking, doing your research and deciding what’s ultimately right for you based on evidence or genuine personal preference, not fairy tales!

    Take home message

    Life is stressful enough! Following a fad diet adds even more unnecessary pressure with zero sustainable results. The best approach to nutrition is nothing new, sexy or exciting – it’s simply called a balanced diet! Nourish your body with wholesome foods in accordance with your body composition and goals, limit low-nutrition treats, drink plenty of water and stay active – and voila, you’re ready for everything!