The Dangers of Fad Dieting

In popular culture, fad dieting refers to trendy, weight-loss methods that promise fast and easy results —at the risk of malnutrition or other mental and physical negative effects. These diets typically last a few weeks; not necessarily appealing to people’s desire to stay healthy, but a vain desire for a better physical image. So while they can be beneficial in special cases, a fad diet’s “focus is on inches and pounds, not reducing the risk of diabetes or heart disease,” WebMD suggests. 

Bringing in some statistics, the Health Research Funding Organization says that over half of the adult population was on a diet in 2010 and according to Statista, the prevalence of obesity has risen steadily over the past two decades. Interestingly, the IFIC says that, people are now focusing on health improvement rather than weight loss, with over one third of Americans following a specific diet in 2018 –a 22% increase from 2017 surveys– and 18-to-34-year-olds as the most involved. “The top eating pattern cited was intermittent fasting (10 percent),” the foundation suggests, and “diets considered at least somewhat restrictive of carbohydrates were well-represented, including Paleo (7 percent), low-carb (5 percent), Whole30 (5 percent), high-protein (4 percent), and ketogenic/high-fat (3 percent).”

Regardless of the low success rates historical statistics have shown for fad dieters in the long-term benefits, diets continue to be improved, and to influence people’s eating behaviors. And even the latest fad diets, bringing focus on a recommended consumption of specific food groups while restricting others, appeal primarily to weight-loss dieters due to the mental and physical ease the diets bring.

Keto dieting, for example, shines the green light on high-fat foods, but the lights are bright red for carbohydrates as Keto dieting is rooted on the ketosis idea that “when you reduce carbs, your body maintains its energy balance by shifting its fuel source from carbs to fats.” Thus, by allowing mostly consumption of oils, spreads, and fatty meats with almost no carbs, your body will run out of carbohydrates. And when this happens, your liver will have to learn to fuel energy to your body by breaking the fats you consume to create ketones, which you produce for energy balance when you don’t have enough insulin in your body to turn sugar (or glucose) into energy. 

Here, other versions of Keto dieting also propose that when there is low fat intake in the now fat-fueling body, your body’s energy reserves, otherwise known as body fat, will serve its purpose much faster than when exercising, giving you a slimmer body within weeks and without the exercise strain. 

According to America’s Test Kitchen with U.S. News, however, of the 70% of people surveyed about starting a form of Keto dieting, over 95% suggest not to have consulted with a registered dietitian whether the diet was suitable for their needs or physical health. In fact, U.S. News says that health experts warn that Keto’s high-fat can represent a risk for people with certain health conditions: “Following the keto diet requires giving up fruits, whole grains and starchy vegetables – the opposite recommendations for a heart- or diabetes-friendly diet.” Yet only about 40% of the surveyed dieters suggest being slightly worried about the health concerns that have been found about the diet.

Furthermore, in Keto dieting, like in plenty of fad diets, while your body could be giving you the illusion that it is losing encouraging amounts of weight, it could actually be losing nutrients, minerals, and amino acids that are fundamental for a healthy living. And that’s besides the negative side effects of sugar withdrawal alone. 

Like salts in hydrating sports drinks, for example, glycogen, a form of carbohydrates, too, has the ability to absorb and store water, even up to 3 times its own weight. While it is stored in the liver and muscles to quickly turn into an energy fuel in the muscular system, the more glycogen you store, the more water your muscles safeguard in the process. So, when the system becomes glycogen deficient by limiting carbs intake, not only will the system eventually run out of glycogen it had stored, but this carb will also take at least its own ability to store water with it. Thus the blocks building and strengthening your muscular system will be gone as well, giving your eyes the illusion that you are losing great amounts of fat, but it is actually water weight.

According to Healthline, a sugar detox can also lead to uncomfortable physical symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, and light-headedness, which can easily be solved with OTC medicine. But among harder to heal problems are the mental disbalances that a sugar detox brings in. These can be worrisome as they can lead to changes in sleep patterns, depression, cravings, and even cognitive issues. 

That said, in dieting at the most restrictive levels, dieters, especially young women, have been observed to develop different forms of eating disorders within 6 months into the plan. These disorders, in turn, can threaten your body and life further with their own symptoms, which may include an unstable heart rate or blood pressure, fainting, or bleeding from vomiting, and can lead to emergent hospitalization, and even death.

For a psychological perspective, dietician and educational psychologist, Robyn A. Osborn, RD, PhD, suggests that the main reason people opt for the “quick fix” is that people need to feel that the results of their efforts will outweigh the costs. Or “they just like the way [a celebrity] looks and they’d like to look like her, too.” So they dive into restrictive fad diets regardless of their unsound logic or damaging effects they bring to the body, Lisa Dorfman, RD, another dietician, and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association says.

In “The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet,” for example, a quote from CSI: Miami actress, Eva LaRue, starts: “I am a firm believer in The Paleo Solution. I maintain a hectic schedule that starts early and finishes late. Filming a television series, maintaining my fitness, and being a mom can be harrowing some days. Since adopting a Paleo way of eating I look and feel better, and I know that I am setting a good example for my daughter.”

Indeed Paleo dieting seems to have healthier effects on some people than other diets, and it is specifically different from Keto dieting because while Keto, like most fad diets, is unsustainable –your body cannot keep up in ketosis forever and eventually dieters need to consume carbs again– Paleo’s lifestyle, like veganism, can be sustained but it has its costs: No grains, legumes, dairy and even some vegetables.

For a quick review of Paleo dieting, Mayo Clinic says “a paleo diet limits foods that became common when farming emerged about 10,000 years ago. These foods include dairy products, legumes and grains.” And while in some cases the reduced consumption of some foods can help manage, for example, cholesterol levels, it also restricts the body from vitamins, dietary fibers, and nutrients that only whole grains and legumes offer. Plus, also absent from the diet are dairy products, which are popular sources of protein and calcium. Thus, while some celebrities sponsor these diets for public consumption serving as proof of the health and shaping benefits, it’s crucial to mention that “one size fits all” does not apply in these diets in any way.

Unlike Keto and Paleo dieting, intermittent fasting, the most common diet according to IFIC, restricts the body from all foods timely. While it can be compared with starving, which according to D.L. Barnard et al weight loss via starvation can make you lose lean muscle and lean body mass, others argue that these two are very different as fasting implies there is control and will, which in truth count for psychological arguments, but not for physical. Furthering Barnard et al findings, InBody explains that any form of starvation “encompasses water, bones, organs, etc. Reducing the mass of your bones is problematic, as that decreases bone density and can make you more prone to injury.”

In the same argument, Dr. Jason Fung, MD suggests that while fasting does bring in benefits to the body, he also states that hunger, constipation, headaches, dizziness, heartburn, and muscle cramps, some of the side effects in fasting to lose weight, are nothing compared to more serious side effects this weight-loss method can bring such as the “refeeding syndrome.” This, the U.S. National Library of Medicine defines as the observed fatal shifts in fluids and electrolytes mostly in malnourished patients receiving artificial refeeding. “These shifts result from hormonal and metabolic changes and may cause serious clinical complications,” as stated. And can include dropped levels of magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus, which lack thereof brings its own fatal effects in the body such cardiac arrest, seizures, and other harmful effects affecting your heart, lungs, kidneys, blood, muscles, digestion, and nervous system.

In explaining how the refeeding syndrome develops, even within a 5-day period of malnourishment, Medical News Today says that it can start when a malnourished person begins to eat again. “The syndrome occurs because of the reintroduction of glucose, or sugar. As the body digests and metabolizes food again, this can cause sudden shifts in the balance of electrolytes and fluids. These shifts can cause severe complications, and the syndrome can be fatal.”

Closing up with Liebig’s barrel (see balanced plant nutrition image here as an example), the idea suggests that an organism or system will grow healthy and sustainably only as much as the least available component allows. And while a single missing component can deteriorate or unbalance your overall health, overcompensation for one missing component, usually what fad dieting does, with a different one can be irrelevant or even make the system irregular. 

For a healthy nutritious diet analogy, think of a healthy diet as in Liebig’s barrel. The level of your body’s health goes parallel with the highest level the water can reach inside the container. The more water inside, the better the health state your body is in. So the limits for a better health, and to symbolically fill the barrel, are only those found in the heights of the different staves, where each lid-level stave metaphorically represents the medically suggested, continued intake of vitamins, nutrients, minerals and other components that your individual body needs. And when the levels of nutrients and minerals found in your body are optimized, the water finally fully fills the barrel and the lid can be safely placed on top, meaning that your body will have exactly everything it needs in a balanced form.

Lastly, with Keto, Paleo, and intermittent fasting previously explained, almost all consulted articles for this piece from doctors, dietitians, and psychologists have one thing in common: They suggest a balanced, nutritious diet first and foremost. Although you will not see physical changes as fast as with fad diets, your success rates at achieving weight-loss and health improvement in the long term is high above any other popular diet there is.

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