What you need to know about fad diets: find out the promises and pitfalls of some common fad diets

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Lose up to 10 pounds in 30 days! You will look and feel better than ever before. No more forbidden foods or grueling exercise programs. The pounds melt away as you sleep.

advertisements like this promote the latest fad diet for quick and easy weight loss. However, these diets limit your food selections and are usually based on testimonials rather than scientific studies. Americans spend billions of dollars each year on fad diets, but do any of them really work long-term? Are they healthy? Four teens describe the fad diets they have tried in order to control their weight.

Low-Carb, High-Protein

JoAnne followed a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet to lose weight when she was 15 years old. While following the diet, she had to avoid or limit bread, potatoes, pasta, bananas, breakfast cereals, carrots, fruit, candy, and desserts. She could eat meat and fat anytime, but could have only small amounts of some vegetables each day.

“I lost 35 pounds while I was on the diet,” JoAnne said. “I loved losing the weight, but I got sick of eating the same thing every day. When I stopped following it, I gained back all the weight I had lost, plus more.”


Promoters of this type of diet say that carbohydrates are bad because they cause weight gain (1 typical example is ice cream. No matter how good your ice cream makers is, this type of food should be kept away from your daily menu). The truth about low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets is that the complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are an important source of energy for your body. Many foods high in protein are also high in saturated fat, which can raise your blood cholesterol levels. This type of fad diet can also cause dehydration, headaches, bad breath, nausea, dizziness, and weakness.

Carolyn Bell, L.D.N., R.D., owner of Nutrition and Diet Services in Denham Springs, Louisiana, works with several teens who are trying to control their weight.

“Teens who follow a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet may not get all the nutrients they need to grow,” says Bell. “They are at higher risk for heart disease, high cholesterol, kidney stones, osteoporosis, and poor long-term weight control.”

Limited Food Choices

Beth, age 18, followed a meal plan that only allowed eating a certain kind of food. These plans promote foods that “burn fat” such as grapefruit, celery, or cabbage soup.

In truth, no food can burn fat. Like Beth, you will become bored with the allowed food and probably give up. These diets don’t teach you healthy eating habits, and they aren’t nutritionally balanced.

Beth also took diet pills. Never take diet pills without your doctor’s supervision.

Diet drugs have unwanted side effects and can be very risky. Some prescription drugs may cause gas, bloating, and an oily discharge from bowels. Abuse of over-the-counter laxatives and diuretics for weight loss can cause dehydration and kidney problems, along with an imbalance of your body’s sodium and potassium levels. Herbal or “natural” supplements that contain ephedra or ma huang are dangerous. Ephedra has been linked to strokes, heart attacks, chest pain, and even death.

Overall, Beth lost 7 pounds and kept it off for a couple of months, but has started to gain it back.

“The diet was hard to follow because I was always hungry and I felt like I was being deprived,” she said. “It was hard not to cheat.”

Skipping Meals

Some dieters skip meals as a way to jump-start a weight-loss program. Heather, 16, tried cutting out a meal or two a day.

“I only ate one meal with less than 500 calories a day,” Heather said. “When I’d lost about I 0 pounds, I felt more confident in the way I looked. But I couldn’t eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it, so I went off the diet. I’ve gained back about 8 pounds so far.”

Anytime you cut your calorie intake drastically, you will lose weight. However, this method deprives your body of nutrients and you can end up with low energy, weakness, lightheadedness, and other health problems.

Quick weight loss means lost muscle mass, not fat. Losing muscle makes long-term weight control difficult.

Diane Noack, M.S., R.D., creator of N.E.W. LIFE, a nutrition, exercise, and wellness program, says, “When you fast [or skip meals], you miss out on the thousands of phytochemicals found in foods. Phytochemicals are plant chemicals that help your body fight disease. For example, the antioxidant vitamins A, C, E, and the mineral selenium found in fruits and vegetables help protect your cells from damage. Your body needs so many phytochemicals that you have to eat a balanced diet in order to get them all.”


The Healthy “Weigh”

If you are wondering whether or not you need to lose weight, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. You might be able to control your weight by reducing your portion sizes, eating a wide variety of foods, and being more physically active. Constant dieting is not only hazardous to your health, it can also damage your self-esteem.

Now that you know the pitfalls of fad diets, what’s the healthy “weigh”? Your best bet is to go for a balanced diet, daily exercise, and smaller portions.

Managing Your Weight

You see an advertisement for a weight-management program that says it is not a diet It will help you achieve a healthy body weight and give you more energy. Is this a plan that will really work, or just another dieting gimmick?

Unlike fad diets, weight-management plans are designed to work long-term. They guide your food choices and emphasize both regular physical activity and behavior changes.

Specifically, a good weight-management plan has the following characteristics:

* It needs to provide all the nutrients your body needs by following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid. Most importantly, you need to be able to eat a wide variety of the foods that you like.

* It provides for a slow weight loss. You should only lose 1/2 to 1 pound per week. This may be frustrating, but a slow, steady weight loss will come from losing fat rather than muscle.

* It doesn’t leave you feeling hungry or tired. Choose a plan where you can eat at least 1,200 to 1,500 calories each day.

* It allows you to eat commonly available foods wherever you go. You should be able to follow the plan whether you are at home, at a restaurant, or a party.

* The plan should help you develop lifelong eating, exercise, and health habits. You should see a doctor or registered dietitian to help you determine your healthy body weight before you start the plan.


Students will comprehend the health problems that may be associated with several different fad diets. They will summarize some of the strategies used in advertisements for fad diets to persuade readers to participate in them.


* Summarize some of the basic ideas that a dieter should keep in mind to reduce or maintain a certain body weight. (Dieters should strive for nutritional balance–especially as teens. Exercise is an important means of stimulating metabolism. Never take diet drugs without a doctor’s supervision. Skipping meals leads to low energy, weakness, and lightheadedness–so don’t! Moderation is the key. Lose weight slowly–l/2 to 1 pound per week.)

* How does a weight-management plan differ from a fad diet? (A weight-management program is designed to work long-term; it encourages quality food choices, regular physical activity, and appropriate behavior changes.)


1. Assign students to construct a table in which they will compare and contrast three different types of fad diets described in this article. Their table should address the following points concerning each diet: Which foods are restricted in this diet? Which foods are allowed or encouraged on this diet? What positive outcome(s) can you expect from following this diet? What are the potential negative health results of following this diet for a long time?

2. Have students find and analyze ads available for fad diets and products used in fad diets. These may include magazine ads, radio and TV ads and infomercials, and any other form of product claim. What techniques (such as testimonials, scientific claims, promises of quick and easy weight loss, etc.) are used to persuade the individual to purchase or join?


* The American Dietetic Association offers articles on fad diets on its Web site, www.eatright.org; search under “fad diets.” Also see their listing of other Nutrition Fact Sheets on a wide variety of topics at www.eatright.org/Public/Nutrition Information/92.cfm.

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