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How to Spot a Fad Diet

As the start of another new year rolls around, many of us reflect back on the last couple of months, wishing we’d eaten a bit less or maybe moved a tad more. We start to think about how we want THIS year to be different… And then we hear it… “Lose 21 pounds in 21 days, guaranteed!” “Eat what you want, don’t exercise, and still lose weight!” “Cleanse and detox to dissolve fat fast!”

During a time when people are often itching for a fresh start, media becomes rich with ads for different types of fad diets that are supposedly coming to our rescue. Unfortunately, just as the name implies, a “fad” diet is one that is followed with great enthusiasm, but only for a very short time. The short-lived nature of these diets is most often due to the fact that they are unsustainable. They tend to be expensive, uncomfortable, unsafe, unrealistic, or some combination of all of these.

So how can you spot a fad diet before it gets the best of you? And, what should you do instead?

The following is a list of features commonly seen among fad diets. If a diet you are considering is characterized by of these, we recommend steering clear:

Fad diet warning signs:

  1. It asks you to completely eliminate certain categories of foods or encourages you to eat ONLY a narrow range of foods. Will you lose weight if you eliminate all carbohydrates or eat only cabbage soup for a week? Sure! When you have fewer things to eat, you will likely eat less, which may lead to weight loss. However, this weight loss usually comes at a cost to overall health, and ends up being short-term. Why? Because cravings for the foods that you aren’t allowed to have often increase, which can actually lead you to eat even more of them in the long run. You may also become bored with not being able to eat normally in social situations, which decreases the odds that you’ll stick with the fad diet.
  1. It requires you to buy something. Fad diets often push you to buy pills, shakes, or special pre-packaged foods in order to achieve the advertised results. Because supplements are regulated as food, not pharmaceuticals, the ingredients in them have not necessarily been proven to be safe and effective. Research suggests that an estimated 23,000 emergency room visits each year can be attributed to adverse outcomes related to dietary supplements.1 And, while shakes, bars, and pre-packaged foods may make your life easier initially, there will likely come a day where you might want to eat something other than a bar for lunch and you will have no idea what’s “safe” to have on the fad diet.
  1. It promises dramatic results. “Lose 21 pounds in 21 days!”, “Burn off unwanted stomach fat!”, “Instantly reduce belly bloating!” Alluring as they are, scientifically speaking, these claims do not hold up. You will likely lose an impressive amount of weight during the first few days of a fad diet, but it will be primarily water, not fat. Evidence suggests that gradual and steady weight loss over the long-term (1 to 2 pounds per week) is more sustainable and also healthier for your body.
  1. It recommends a one-size-fits-all approach. Every individual has unique nutritional needs, food preferences, and life circumstances that shape what is right for them in terms of a nutrition plan. If a 27-year-old linebacker and a 67-year-old librarian try to follow the same food plan, at least one of them is not going to get the results they expected. The one-size-fits-all setup often leads people to feel like they have failed, when in reality, it is the fad diet that has failed them.
  1. It relies on testimonials rather than scientific evidence. While before and after pictures (which often suspiciously look like two different people), and quotes from people who have had dramatic results are compelling, they can’t hold a candle to good old fashioned scientific evidence. If the diet you’re looking into does not reference any large scientific studies that demonstrate the efficacy of the product, that probably means there are none.
  1. It sounds too darn good to be true. Just like unicorns and the tooth fairy, there are some things your gut tells you just can’t be real. If it seems too good, well, it probably is.

So what am I supposed to do instead??

According to eating behavior expert, Dr. Brian Wansink, “the best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”2 The best shot you have at achieving optimal health and maintaining a healthy weight, long-term, is to adopt a nutrition plan that:

  1. Meets your nutritional needs
  2. Includes a wide variety of foods that are eaten in a balanced manner and in reasonable portions
  3. Fits your lifestyle and dietary preferences

Will you lose 10 lbs in a week? No. Will your belly fat simply melt away? No. But you WILL be able to live each day without constantly worrying about what you can and cannot eat. You WILL be able to eat in social situations without feeling like an outsider. And when the next New Year rolls around, instead of once again saying “I want THIS year to be different,” you might be able to look back and say “This year HAS been different.”


  1. Geller, Andrew I., et al. “Emergency department visits for adverse events related to dietary supplements.”New England Journal of Medicine 16 (2015): 1531-1540.
  2. Wansink, Brian.Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think. Bantam, 2007.