Don't Believe the Hype: Fad-Diet Fallacies

Medically reviewed in December 2020

No doubt you've heard at least one friend, family member, or coworker talk about his or her experiences with the Atkins approach, the South Beach Diet, or the Zone. But before counting carbs was all the rage, a low-fat lifestyle was the diet du jour. And before that . . . well, you get the picture.

The buzz surrounding these popular programs can make even the most sensible eater a little curious. And if you're searching for a way to lose stubborn pounds, these programs may seem like far more than a curiosity -- they may sound like the answer to your prayers.

Unfortunately, few people experience long-term success with fad diets, and a large percentage of the population is still overweight. How can that be? Simple: Rather than helping people understand and adopt a lifelong approach of balancing caloric intake with calories burned, fad diets often give people excuses to eat insensibly, hindering their attempts to make permanent, healthy changes to their diets and lifestyles.

How to avoid being taken
Occasionally, there are a few valuable lessons hidden in some of these elaborate diet plans, but you need to sift through misinformation and oversimplification to get to the practical, healthful nutrition advice. So when it comes to fad diets, here are two quick ways to alleviate confusion:

1. Beware of misleading buzzwords. Once the buzz about the latest diet trend begins, marketers latch on to certain key words and product points that appeal to people who are watching their weight with the trend. Then, the food industry responds by focusing on words and claims that suggest their products can help dieters follow a particular diet plan. Unfortunately, these buzzwords are often misleading, allowing the manufacturers to capitalize not only on consumers' curiosity but also on their lack of certainty about nutrition labeling.

Take, for example, one of the buzz phrases in low-carb dieting: "net carbs." Dozens of products now claim to have low "net carbs" or low "impact carbs." Both of these terms sound technical. But the truth is that these terms were created by the diet and food industry.

They have not been evaluated, approved, or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

If it's not a government-approved labeling method, there's no way to evaluate what the term means or whether it's benefiting your health.

Furthermore, this "net carb" terminology does not generally provide an accurate estimate of total carbohydrate content. The FDA calculates total carbohydrates by subtracting grams of protein, fat, water, and ash from the total weight of the food. This number is listed on the food label as total carbohydrates.

Diet-food manufacturers calculate "net carbs" by taking total carbohydrates and subtracting fiber, glycerin, and sugar alcohols, all of which are forms of carbohydrates. This gives the appearance of reduced amounts of carbohydrates in their products and suggests that the products don't raise blood sugar, even though they do.

Unfortunately, the use of such labeling has expanded to hundreds of other foods and may lead you to believe you are consuming fewer carbs and calories than you actually are.

Knowing what to look for on food labels can help you avoid being duped.

Cutting back on processed carbs -- drinks that contain added sugars or fructose, and foods such as cookies, cakes, breads, and pasta made from refined flour -- is certainly healthy advice. But encouraging consumers to buy processed and packaged products that claim to be "carb smart" when they actually hide their carbs is not.

Here are some other product terms and buzzwords to be wary of: quick, fast, slim, trim, lean, lite, natural, fat replacers, meal replacement, breakthrough, and revolutionary.

2. Question sweeping generalizations. As a diet gains popularity, the specifics often get boiled down to blanket statements or sound bites, such as "Carbohydrates make you fat," or "All fat is bad." As a result, these diets turn into nothing more than an exaggeration of one facet of nutrition at the expense of another. Moderation and balance are lost, and the followers of the diet usually fail to lose weight, long term.

For instance, during the fat-free craze, people turned to no-fat and low-fat foods that were high in carbohydrates, which led to overconsumption of nutrient-poor, refined carbs. Now, popular diets have done a complete reversal and tell you to replace carbohydrates with foods that are instead high in protein, fat, and cholesterol. When food groups become so polarized, it's easy to lose perspective on what a balanced diet looks like. And that's bad for your health.

As a general rule, removing entire food groups or severely limiting food variety is a bad idea and may be harmful to your health.

In order to function, your body requires a balance of the nutrients found in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, dairy, lean proteins, and unsaturated fats. The total fat or carbohydrate content of your diet needn't be severely restricted, provided that the sources of each are the right ones and that you continue to maintain an optimal balance of caloric intake and expenditure.

  • Don't be afraid of fats: Just be sure most of the fat you eat is healthy, unsaturated fat to help protect your heart and arteries from needless aging. Olive or canola oil, and fats from nuts or oily fish, are better than hydrogenated vegetable oils, butter, or lard.
  • Keep the carbs coming: Carbs are a major energy source in the human diet. You need them. Choose unrefined whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, and fresh vegetables and fruit as your major source of carbs.

Other generalizations that don't hold up to scrutiny: claims that one particular food, such as grapefruit or cabbage, is the answer to weight loss; and assertions that when -- or in what order -- you eat certain foods can aid in weight loss.

Look for a lifestyle and stick to the basics
It's easy to get lured in by the hype of the hottest new diet, especially when it's all over the media and in the stores. But keep in mind that your weight is a key component of your overall health, so don't subject your health to a trend. A healthy diet is not a regimen that changes with the seasons, but a way of life. If you're confused by a diet plan, or it's difficult to manage, chances are that it's not the answer to long-lasting weight control.

It may sound too easy to be true, but the most effective recommendations for people who want to lose weight and keep it off are to eat a balanced diet, exercise, and monitor calories.

5 simple weight loss tips that work

  • Eat a little protein at every meal.
  • Cut back on refined grains and sugars.
  • Perfect your portions.
  • Diversify. Enjoy a few items from each food group every day.
  • Opt for fresh rather than packaged foods.

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