Russ Howe PTI
Posted in: Nutrition

Why Fad Diets Don't Work

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Why Fad Diets Don't Work / 7th January 2018

I totally understand why fad diets exist.

fad diets don't workI mean, if we want a pizza we just tap an app and then bosh, it's at the door.

If we want to find out what our ex has been doing we no longer need to stalk them. We just hit Facebook and then bosh, turns out they've gained 30lbs and started listening to death metal.

So it makes perfect sense that in a world where most of us are unhappy with the way we look, we get bombarded with promises of instant results for minimal effort.

These things cater to the things we want to hear, too.

Instead of telling us that we just need to work hard and eat smart (because dull), it turns out the real problem is motherf**king sugar.

Or wheat.

Or carbs.

Those delicious little things.

So today I am going to run through the main reasons why fad diets - yes, all of them - do not work for proper weight loss results.

do fad diets work

The body adapts to extreme calorie reduction

The human body is the smartest piece of machinery either of us will ever operate.

One of the smartest things your body will do is adapt to it's surroundings to keep your vital organs functioning at the necessary levels.

Let's put this into context.

Have you ever known someone who has suddenly dropped their calorie intake to a ridiculously low level in a bid to lose weight?

Other than the fact that they begin to shuffle through life like an extra from Z Nation (everyone knows a Z Nation reference is cooler than a Walking Dead reference), something very strange happens to them around the 3-4 week mark.

They adapt to that super-low calorie intake!

do low carb diets work

I once had a pal who tried this.

After reading a crash diet in a celebrity magazine, she decided to change her regular 3100 calorie diet (which was mostly junk food) to a 600 calorie diet which was big on fruit juice.

After an initial period of weight loss and feeling like she'd found the holy grail (I'll explain how this was achieved later), she hit a brick wall around a month in and found herself in the genuinely awful position of eating like a rabbit, pounding the treadmill and losing absolutely nothing.

Imagine that.

F**k.

That's worse than finding out Ben & Jerry's have started doing home delivery orders, only to see that they've changed their entire menu to "healthy alternatives".

There was no witchcraft at play here.

It wasn't that she wasn't eating the latest "superfood". By adapting, the body was just doing what it always does.

While it was a shock at first and weight initially dropped, the fact that this super-low calorie intake was being maintained every single day forced the body to begin the process of slowing the metabolism, meaning you will find it significantly harder to burn off body fat even with this reduced calorie intake.

It takes this step because, quite frankly, the body doesn't give a damn about your appearance.

It feels it is being starved and makes the necessary adaptations to keep your vital organs functioning on your new calorie intake.

Fat is now a high priority, so if we continue down this path we'll also see a reduction in muscle mass.

do low carb diets work

You miss out on micronutrients

One of the facets associated with extreme diets is that you are often told to remove certain food groups from your daily diet.

(think no carb diet, fat free diet, no sugar diet, etc.)

As a result, your food choices become much more restricted.

One of the worst things about this approach is that we start placing foods onto so-called "good" and "bad" lists. This creates an unhealthy relationship with food and is like planting the seeds for a future eating disorder. Here's why.

Heck, since we're talking about extreme diets, I've even seen a few out there which recommend eating one single food (i.e. the cabbage soup diet).

Can you imagine the torture of this?

why crash diets do not work

There are numerous issues which arise with this, and many of them tie in to the other points I make in this article (huge calorie deficit), so for now let me focus on a problem which usually goes unnoticed - you miss out on major micronutrients.

Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are responsible for all the boring jobs your body requires on a daily basis, from strengthening your hair to looking after your immune system, and everything in between.

They are obtained via food.

So by restricting your diet to only a few options (or, even worse, one single food) you simultaneously eliminate your intake of these crucial vitamins and minerals.

This is why a fad diet leaves you feeling like someone just s**t in your protein shaker.

If you are training in the gym (and seeing as you're reading my site, I presume you love the gym) then I cannot overstate the importance of staying on top of your vitamins and minerals.

They will help you to build more muscle, burn more fat and recover from workouts.

So far in this article you've seen an example of how your diet can negatively impact your training (missing key macros and/or micros) and how your training can negatively impact your diet (creating an even bigger calorie deficit when it's already too big, leaving you feeling run down).

low carb diet

You are losing MAINLY water anyway

In the first point, I mentioned that weight loss is usually achieved during the first 3 weeks of an extreme diet.

And a lot of that is just water.

See, when we reduce our carbohydrate intake to very low levels our body responds by flushing the water we have stored, and this gives very quick (yet ultimately pointless) weight loss.

This is when your guru will pounce for a testimonial, hailing their bulls**t "system" as the best thing since The Rock did this.

It really doesn't matter whether a fad diet has told you to stop eating wheat, sugar, or chocolate. Coupled with your new super-low 600 calorie intake, there is one very important thing happening under the hood of your new diet - you are eating far less carbohydrates.

Water weight loss usually occurs quickly, long before you hit "the wall" of metabolic adaptation, meaning early results are exaggerated and this leaves people thinking they have done something wrong when the results stop coming. Suddenly, they are frustrated, blaming themselves for doing something wrong, or trying dieting even harder to kick-start results.

Read this for more about water weight loss.

FAD DIETS ARE VERY unsustainable

Time for me to bust out one of my slogans:

"The best diet is the one you can stick to."

More than 80% of dieters experience weight regain after a diet, because they cannot maintain the lifestyle which they used to drop the weight in the first place.

Sure, eating 600 calories per day, avoiding bread and setting ablaze to any food containing the letter C might help you shock the body in the short-term (and make you feel trendy AF), but it's not worth it in the long-term.

Because, as mentioned above, water weight is regained the moment you return to "eating normal food" again (i.e. higher carbs). To make matters worse, once the body has adapted to 600 calories per day, if you bump it up to 2000+ you'll see a regain of any actual weight which was lost anyway (and usually extra, because the body can't handle the sudden rise).

Another bad side effect of fad diets is that when we crash off the diet itself, we don't just return to eating normal food again.

No, we attack the fridge with a bigger case of the munchies than Chunk from The Goonies!

A List Of Popular Fad Diets That Don't Work

Let's take a look at the most popular fad diets to emerge in the last few years.

All of these are nonsense, using instant gratification as a means to promote an unhealthy lifestyle.

Maybe you've seen some of them.

does the dukan diet work

  • The Dukan Diet

The Dukan Diet was originally popular in France, before making it's way around the world through celebrity magazines.

The diet itself is split into 4 phases.

During phase 1 the participant is told to eat only protein (?!) and in phase 2 this changes to protein and vegetables. Phase 3 moves to protein, vegetables and starches, before phase 4 allows you to eat whatever you want (way too vague), providing you set aside one day per week as a protein-only day and "take the stairs whenever possible".

Cuz magic.

Basically, The Dukan Diet is a zero carb diet which then progresses into a low carb diet.

Why it doesn't work:

  1. Unsustainable in the long-term
  2. Very restrictive food choices
  3. Cutting out food groups and/or macronutrients
  4. Missing key micronutrients
  5. Bulk of weight lost is water, due to zero/low carbohydrate intake

17 day diet

  • The 17 Day Diet

Yep. 17. How specific is that?

The 17 Day Diet is another low carbohydrate plan, encouraging users to walk for 17 minutes per day (because gimmick) and stop eating carbohydrates after 2 O'Clock in the afternoon for no good scientific reason.

Why 17 days? Well, you could be forgiven for thinking this is because an odd number stands out more than a round number. And that's partially correct (because who has time for a 20 day diet?)..

But it's also because those first 17 days of the plan is how long it'll take for your body to flush itself of water. When you come off it, you'll regain weight and presume it's becuause you came off it. Not that the system sucks. Next you're buying their recommended shakes and going even harder..

Why it doesn't work:

  • Unsustainable in the long-term
  • Restricting certain food groups
  • Missing in micronutrients
  • Bulk of weight lost is once again just water

list of fad diets that don't work

  • The Atkins Diet

During the early part of the 2000's, everyone was doing The Atkins Diet.

This was one of the first diets to promote the idea that "carbohydrates are the enemy", and led to the general demonization of carbs in the media, which lasted the best part of a decade until (thankfully) science started to win.

What's unique about this diet is that it attracted an almost cult-like following, with people going full bats**t crazy if they saw a co-worker eat a starchy carb. This has since been replicated by keto, paleo and people who insist on dropping lumps of butter in their coffee.

Just like the other two before it, it's just a very low carb diet plan which woo's the user with claims of losing up to 15lbs in the first two weeks.

How? Yup.

Why it doesn't work:

  • Unsustainable in the long-term
  • Missing micronutrients
  • Weight lost is water, meaning an immediate regain when the user returns to eating carbohydrates
  • Food choices are heavily restricted

how to lose weight and keep it off

  • The HCG Diet

Ah, the HCG Diet..

On a list of the most ridiculous diets I've ever seen, this one has to rank near the top.

I love using this one as an example of why crash diet don't work, because it shows just how crazy things have gotten.

While on the HCG diet, you will be eating 500-800 calories per day (hungry, much?) and receiving injections of HCG, which is a hormone which is produced during pregnancy.

You read that correctly.

F**king injections!

As if that's not bad enough, the icing on the cake (which you're most certaily not allowed to eat!) is that you'll have restrictions placed on carbohydrates again. But wait, because things are about to reach a whole new level of OMG. Because if you slip off your diet and over-indulge, you are instructed to eat just 6 apples the next day to "make up for your mistake".

You cheating b**ch.

There's so much wrong here that it makes Juice Plus reps look like f**king Einstein.

HCG itself has been linked to blood clots, constipation and headaches yet, incidentally, the one thing it hasn't been successfully linked to yet is weight loss! It's not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for weight loss purposes and I don't expect this to change in future.

Why it doesn't work:

  1. Very unsustainable in the long-term
  2. Extreme calorie reduction
  3. Incredibly restrictive food choices
  4. Missing key micronutrients
  5. Weight lost is water, due to the ban on carbohydrates
  6. HCG isn't even linked to weight loss anyway

list of diets that don't work

  • The Raw Food Diet

We all know a guy at work who insists he's a "hunter gatherer".

Eating like a caveman is all the rage these days, and I agree with a few aspects of this eating style (you'll be eating more lean meat, more veg, and less processed food). But then there are those who take it too far.

You start off just trying to clean up your diet, and before long you're nitpicking the minutiae to decide whether it's "natural" enough. 

"Foodies" (people who post clean eating memes on Facebook to remind you that they are better than you) advise that food which has been processed or cooked in any way is not good enough, because certain nutrients are removed.

While certain vegetables do see their micronutrient index reduce via the cooking process, others actually require it in order to unlock their full potential. And then there's protein. Allow me to confirm that eating raw burgers is fucking pointless.

The Raw Food Diet is very impractical, unnecessarily rigid and encourages you to live in a way that just doesn't fit today's world.

Why it doesn't work:

  • Very unsustainable due to the constant food prep involved
  • Very restrictive food options

new year diets that work

  • The Alkaline Diet

Speaking of people who like to post meme's on social media, we all have a friend who spouts nonsense about juice cleanses and detox diets.

One of the most popular fad diet choices for these individuals is The Alkaline Diet, a program so incredibly anti-science that it claims it can change your body's PH levels.

Apparently, I just have to wear some yoga pants, put a Valencia filter over my everyday life and drink this water with f**king lemon and cucumber in it.

Cheers, Instagram.

alkaline diet doesnt work

Do not be fooled by this crazy talk.

Instead, see the picture above and let the facts reign supreme.

And while you're on such a good roll putting things right in the universe, go tell your co-worker who pedals this stuff that taking selfies and selling shakes doesn't make them a coach.

Due to the severe restrictions placed upon your food choices, you are left with choosing the bulk of your calorie intake from fish, nuts, vegetables and seeds. So again, this diet is typically lower in carbohydrates and lower in calories because, when faced with a very restrictive diet, most people simply eat fewer calories due to the boredom of food choices available.

Why it doesn't work:

  • Typically lower in carbs, meaning water weight loss is a key factor in the early stages
  • Unsustainable due to very restrictive food choices
  • The name itself is a lie, we cannot alter our body's PH levels

does the cabbage soup diet work

  • The Cabbage Soup Diet

I've joked about this one in a few articles, because I have no idea how it caught on.

The idea with The Cabbage Soup Diet is that you, erm, eat a tonne of cabbage soup and cut out all other food choices except very low calorie snacks.

It's that simple.

It is, of course, total bulls**t.

The weight loss is created because you are suddenly in a massive caloric deficit. You are also getting nowhere near enough protein per day to retain your lean muscle mass.

Why it doesn't work:

  • Not enough protein
  • Missing key micronutrients
  • Ridiculously small list of food choices
  • Hugely unsustainable
  • Extreme calorie reduction

So there's 7 popular fad diets that don't work right off the top of my head, and if you read the reasons why you will notice that they all fall into each of the traps laid out beforehand in today's article.

Simple science, right?

why fad diets dont work

Final Thoughts On Why Fad Diets Don't Work

I can't start an article with the claim that your body is the most complex machine you'll ever operate, and then idly stand by while so-called gurus claim you can trick it by eating "one weird food" or doing "one weird exercise".

  • Fad diets do not work.
  • Extreme diets do not work.
  • Superfood diets do not work.
  • Detox diets do not work.
  • Juice cleanse diets do not work.
  • Nor do diets which are overly restrictive on any food group in any way.

For most of us, all they do is create an unhealthy relationship with food which leads to problems further down the road. Most of us waste years moving from one fad diet to the next, hoping to find the magic ingredient that you must cut out to see your abs.

I want you to do something very different.

I want you to allow yourself any food.

Just don't be a f**king jerk about it.

Building a great body is about discipline. That discipline is hard and requires effort. That's just the way it is.

how to lose weight

What scares me a little, is that the people who claim they don't have the discipline to just eat a little healthier often display even more discipline in eating nothing but cabbage soup for a few weeks at a time.

Sure, they might binge eat at the end of it and regain all the weight they lost. But I think even I would.

If that level of discipline was applied to a diet which was just a bit more sensible (no food off the menu, just don't eat the whole menu), then the sky is the limit.

Because the number one factor in the success of any diet is sustainability.

Studies show that adopting a more flexible approach to your diet (i.e. allowing yourself a treat in moderation) leads to much greater sustainability of a healthy lifestyle versus rigid dieting. (1, 2)

While the "damage" caused by eating a slice of pizza is absolutely minimal, the mental damage caused by driving yourself up the wall by trying to bring tupperware filled with cabbage soup to family events can lead to a very unhealthy relationship with food - one which is both unnecessary and a major factor in triggering binge eating sessions later.

Stress is one of the biggest causes of destroying our self control, leading to disordered eating. An overly restrictive diet is the number one way to push that into overdrive.

So I'll leave you with this:

A fitness lifestyle should be a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for what you ate.

do fad diets work

References:

  1. Smith, C. F., et al. Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite. 1999 Jun;32(3):295-305.
  2. Stewart, T. M., et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite. 2002 Feb;38(1):39-44.
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