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  • Writer's picturePaige Smathers

How to Spot a Fad Diet

Diets have evolved through the years. A decade or so ago, you could spot a diet from a mile away with blatant statements of restriction, deprivation, extreme weight loss, and unabashed fad-ish behaviors. These days, it's trickier to detect dieting messages because diets are going out of style. It's not trendy anymore to say outright that you're following a diet or that your plan you're promoting is a diet, so the language is more along the lines of "lifestyle change" and language that's less restrictive sounding, but let's be clear: it's still is a diet.

SIDE NOTE: I'm not saying all lifestyle changes are bad, but the language can be, and often is, co-opted by diets in disguise.

Because diets don't work (at best) and can be harmful (at worst), I wanted to provide some ideas for how to detect diets in today's world where they're trickier than ever to detect.

Here are some simple principles to keep in mind to help you spot fad diets.

  1. It uses all-or-nothing language. Black and white language like: always and never, should and shouldn't, good and bad, right and wrong when it comes to food isn't helpful. It's just not true that you need to do things perfectly. It's about over time and on averages: how are you doing in feeding yourself generally. And remember, perfect eating isn't healthy eating and healthy eating isn't perfect eating.

  2. It vilifies entire food groups. Any plan or program that tells you to drastically reduce a macronutrient or to completely cut out an entire food group, is a fad diet. Each macronutrient and food group has a role to play in our body, providing it with essential nutrients and energy for wellbeing. Our bodies do best with a wide variety of foods, consistently nourishing yourself throughout the day. Reducing your eating to only a few foods—no matter how "healthy" you've been told those foods are—is simply not health-promoting for your body or for your mental health.

  3. It seems too good to be true. Sweeping promises that seem to good to be true are usually trying to sell you something. Always ask yourself "who's selling and who's buying" in these types of scenarios. Doing so can help clarify the dynamic. Be very wary and suspicious of sweeping claims of fear-based hysteria around food and even sweeping claims of magically curing your ailments or struggles with a food or a supplement. Good health requires consistent, daily efforts to nourish yourself, to get adequate rest, to manage stress, to stay hydrated and to move your body as you're able. It doesn't just occur one day with a magic pill or a magic food plan. In short, if it seems to good to be true, it is.

  4. It's a one-size-fits-all approach. If there's no flexibility for religious background, cultural practices, socioeconomic status, etc. it's too rigid. Food and eating are incredibly important parts of our lives, bringing us together with those we love and connecting us to those who have come before. If a food plan takes you away from social situations, isn't sensitive or aware of different cultural or religious backgrounds, it's something to walk away from. You deserve a relationship with food that allows for important family, cultural and traditional meals, connecting you to what's most important in life.

  5. It's an attempt to trick your body. Things like "if you're hungry just drink a glass of water" or "eat mindfully so you trick your body into eating less" aren't going to help you. Your body is wise. Your body's primary job is to keep you alive—and getting adequate nutrition is a huge part of survival. In other words, your body really can't be tricked. You either eat that carbohydrate now in a sensible way with your meal, or you choose to skip it and end up bingeing on carbohydrates later in the day, typically consuming far more of that food due to restricting than you would have if you'd eaten it in a sensible way during the meal. Learn to work with your body, rather than against it, and notice how your health and wellbeing actually improve.

Although fad diets can be alluring and compelling, it's critical to develop a sense of media literacy and savviness about science and research so you can wade through the vast amount of nutrition noise and land in a place with your relationship with food that's sustainable, realistic, healthy and balanced.

If you're interested in taking your knowledge to the next level, helping you avoid the pitfalls and marketing ploys of fad diets and/or to heal your relationship with food, consider joining one of my brand new online courses: Positive Nutrition for Life: Heal your relationship with food or Positive Nutrition 101: the science of nutrition without the gimmicks.


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