Why Do We Keep Falling for Fad Diets?
Here's how to break the fad-diet habit and lose weight for good
By Martin Downs
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
It seems that just about every week brings a new diet craze. From low-fat to low-carb to food combining, the diets come and go in the magazines and on the best-seller lists. Some prove lastingly popular, but many go the way of the latest dance fad. (Anyone remember the macarena? How about the cabbage soup diet?)
Meanwhile, dietitians keep giving the sensible advice they've been advocating for years: To lose weight, we need to eat less and exercise more.
Let's face it: We all know better than to keep falling for every fad that comes along. So why do we keep doing it?
"I think most people are put off by the fact that what we usually promote is life-long change," says Robyn A. Osborn, RD, PhD, a dietician and educational psychologist in Indianapolis, Ind.
Fad diets are often programs you're supposed to follow for just a few weeks. But nutrition experts insist that the right approach to weight loss is to change your lifestyle -- permanently.
People need to feel that the benefits of changing their behavior will outweigh the costs, Osborn says. For many dieters, she says, the psychological cost of giving up their fattening lifestyle seems too great. So they opt for the "quick fix."
"Or they just identify with the individuals who wrote the book," says Lisa Dorfman, RD, a dietician, mental health counselor, and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
For example, dieters may not think about whether a weight-loss plan touted by an attractive celebrity is healthy or logical. "They just like the way she looks and they'd like to look like her, too," Dorfman says.
Fad diets tend to appeal more to people's vanity than to their desire to stay healthy. The focus is on inches and pounds, not reducing the risk of diabetes or heart disease.
"They're more motivated by wanting to change the way they look than their health," Osborn says. "Maybe that's one of our problems as nutrition health professionals, because we so much focus on the long-term health consequences rather than how you look. We would prefer that people are comfortable with the way they look but they're more concerned with their health."
But in reality, bikini season or an upcoming high-school reunion may seem like more concrete and compelling reasons to slim down. And fad diets are always there, offering seemingly easy solutions.
What's more, you can't discount the warm-fuzzy factor when it comes to advice on weight loss, which causes so much anxiety and frustration for so many people. Authors of diet books often try to come off as nurturing and warm, while "official" advice from the government or professional organizations can seem clinical and cold.
Fads Are Nothing New
Quick GuideSurprising Reasons for Weight Gain
Although fad diets usually claim to be cutting-edge, most recycle ideas that have been knocking around for a while -- in some cases, more than a century.
"Claims that an author has a permanent solution or a new answer are pretty much bogus, because there's hardly a diet that shows up that hasn't been written about before," says Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders.
- A high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet was first described in 1863 by William Banting, who took the dieting advice of his friend, a British physician.
- New York doctor William Howard Hay's theory that proteins and carbohydrates should never be combined in a meal was popular in the 1920s and '30s, and it's still popping up in diet books.
- Anyone promoting a "natural" diet is about 170 years too late to claim originality. The Rev. Sylvester Graham started preaching to Americans about natural foods in 1830.
But no matter how far-fetched, faddish ideas continue to appeal to dieters.
"People are very much intrigued by those things that seem to demystify the whole thing -- there's some magic hormone, or there's something in your blood type, you have to eat certain foods together because of how they're metabolized," Osborn says. "That has to be it. It couldn't be something as simple as I need to eat less and I need to exercise more."
Confusion about nutrition is the very reason fad diets exist. If we all knew how to eat, there would be no need for diet books.
"A lot of people may feel out of control and not know what it is they're supposed to do," Osborn says. "Some of the fad diets that are very regimented I think make people feel more comfortable because it takes all the guesswork out."
Promises of rapid weight loss are a common feature of fad diets. But dieticians say you should aim to lose no more than 2 pounds a week.
"Any diet that's promoting more than a one- or two-pound weight loss a week, most of that's going to be fluid," says Martha McKittrick, RD, a dietician at the New York Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center. "It's almost impossible, unless you weigh like 500 pounds, to lose more than one or two pounds a week of fat."
Fad diets that prohibit or severely restrict carbohydrates may live up to their promises of quick weight loss at the beginning, but that's because cutting back on carbs causes your body to purge stored water, McKittrick says. But as soon as you start eating carbs again, the water weight comes back.
It's fat you want to lose, not water, and definitely not lean muscle tissue, which your body will start to metabolize if don't eat enough.
"If you're chronically taking your calories too low, you can slow your metabolism and lose muscle mass," McKittrick says.
A Short-Term Solution
If you still like the sound of a fad diet plan, try it, Dorfman says - but only for the short term, to jump-start weight loss and get yourself on the way to a healthier lifestyle.
"Perhaps you can lose that first few pounds and get yourself into an exercise outfit, to get yourself to the gym," she says. "If it helps you to get to that point, perhaps it was worth the $16.95 [for the book]."
But be warned that doing that again and again can lead to weight gain. "The more somebody diets, the more difficult it is going to be to develop the kind of healthy eating program that's going to be needed for them to lose weight," Dorfman says.
In the long-term, staying slim is much more important than getting that way quickly.
And the best way to wean yourself from fad dieting may be to succeed in losing weight the old-fashioned way. To that end, here are some tried-and-true tips to help you develop healthy habits:
- Keep a record of what you eat. If you feel you need structure to help you lose weight, log what you eat for a few weeks. This will help you identify bad habits, and give you a general idea of how many calories are in various foods.
- Move your body. "Do something you like, do it on a regular basis, and do it for more than 20 minutes," Dorfman says. If you enjoy it, you'll be more likely to do it regularly. You don't have to be a hard-core triathlete to be active. Start with 10-minute walks and move up from there.
- Each week, set two small goals. For example, if you love doughnuts, pledge not to eat them for one week. Instead eat an extra serving a day of something healthy, such as a fruit or vegetable. If you succeed with that small goal, you'll feel good about yourself and gain momentum for adopting healthy behaviors.
- Try new things. Eat the healthy things you know you like, and also experiment with new tastes to stave off boredom and cravings for junk food. You probably haven't tried every fruit and vegetable available at your local supermarket.
- Allow for treats. Have your favorite high-calorie treats -- occasionally. Don't splurge all the time, but don't make yourself miserable, either.
Originally published Dec. 16, 2003
Medically updated Jan. 3, 2005.
SOURCES: Robyn A. Osborn, RD, PhD . Martha McKittrick, RD, New York Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center. Lisa Dorfman, RD, LMHC, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. Kelly Brownell, PhD, director, Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. Kipple, KF, The Cambridge World History of Food, Vol. 2. Roberts, D. Medical Journal of Australia, December 2001: Vol. 175, 637-640.Anderson, J. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, October. 2000; vol. 19: pp 578-590. Suzanne Somers' Get Skinny on Fabulous Food, Amazon.com. The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss, Amazon.com. Billboard.com. New York Times Best-Seller Lists, Nov. 23, 2003.
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