It’s all fun and games until your jeans don’t fit anymore. With health and wellness at the top of our minds we are constantly on the lookout for ways to shed some kilos. The internet is swamped with different diets, tips, tricks, pills and promises to help you on your way. So, how do you decide what is good diet advice and what is just another fad? Let’s take a closer look.
WHAT MAKES A DIET A “FAD DIET”?
A FAD diet is described as “a weight loss plan or aid that promises dramatic results. These diets typically don’t result in long-term weight loss and they are usually not very healthy1. In fact, some of these diets can actually be dangerous to your health”. FAD diets typically promise rapid weight loss and numerous health benefits but often they have no scientific evidence supporting their use. Most are restrictive in nature and nutritionally unbalanced. These diets are for the short-term fix which makes weight-loss results unmaintainable2. Many FAD Diets are designed to take advantage of people’s eager approach to “try anything” to lose weight, look and feel better, and reduce their risk for weight-related health problems.
TIPS TO IDENTIFY FAD FROM FACT?
To decipher whether a diet you would like to follow is a FAD or not, ask yourself the following questions1:
- Does the diet promise rapid weight loss?
- Does the diet sound too good to be true?
- Does the diet help sell a company’s product? Appetite reducing tea, metabolism boosting pill, supplements, soups or juices?
- Does the diet lack valid scientific research to support its claims?
- Does it put emphasis on specific foods (what to eat and what to avoid)
- Is it very restrictive – does it cut out a major food group?
SOME POPULAR EXAMPLES OF FAD DIETS
1.The paleo diet
The paleo diet (caveman diet) has seven fundamental characteristics of hunter-gatherer diets. It claims to help individuals to optimize their health, minimize their risk of chronic diseases and help them to lose weight. The following foods are excluded: grains, bread, dairy products (in some versions), legumes (beans, peas, etc.), and processed sugar and salt.
The diet principles are as follows:
- Higher protein intake
- Lower carbohydrate and lower GI choices
- Higher fibre intake
- Moderate to higher fat intake dominated by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with balanced Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats
- Higher potassium and lower sodium intake
- Net dietary alkaline load that balances dietary acid
- Higher intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plant phytochemicals
This diet is aligned with current recommendations by encouraging individuals to include more fruits and vegetables and to reduce added sugar and sodium. The combination of plant foods and a protein-rich diet can help control blood sugar, regulate blood pressure, contribute to weight loss and prevent type 2 diabetes4.
According to the U.S. News & World Report, a typical paleo plan exceeds current recommendations for fat and protein intake and it falls short of carbohydrates. The exclusion of grains, legumes and dairy can be risky and unnecessary if one does not have an allergy or intolerance. These foods are rich in essential nutrients, many of which have been proven through several studies to assist in weight loss (particularly fibre and dairy) and eliminating these foods is not necessarily a ticket to ending disease and ensuring weight loss.
2.Banting diet (LCHF)
We all have heard of the banting diet, which sports scientist Tim Noakes revived. This diet actually dates back to the 1800s. It is a moderate protein, low carbohydrate diet that is high in fat. Other rules include: only eat when hungry, no snacking, no sugar, no grains and very little fruit. Sugar is believed to be addictive by Prof Noakes and his team5. The idea is that fat is more filling and it’s an appetite suppressant, so you should only require 2 meals per day.
The plus side of this diet is that many people find it easy to follow and many have had great success in losing large amounts of weight. One of the main concerns surrounding this diet is that it is nutritionally incomplete. The restrictions could deprive you from essential nutrients which could lead to constipation in the short-term and nutritional deficiencies in the long-run6. Another is the bad reputation that this diet gives carbohydrates and it doesn’t account for “good” low GI, high fibre carbs that are necessary for everyday digestive comfort. Prof Noakes has specifically been said to have used bad scientific reasoning and a biased approach6.
Another big concern or debate is the role of fat in heart disease risk, and what effect different types of fats have. This is currently quite a grey area however current research is telling us that we do need fat, but to focus on healthy plant fats as opposed to saturated animal fats. The long-term effects of this diet are still unknown and therefore those who wish to “bant” are encouraged to do so cautiously under medical supervision and to check their blood lipid levels regularly.
3. Alkaline diet
This diet is predominantly a vegetarian diet where the aim is to balance your body’s acid level (pH). If the body’s pH level is too low (acidic) it puts pressure on your organs, particularly liver and kidneys to break down toxins. Dr Robert O. Young, the author of ‘The pH Miracle’, wrote “there’s really just one disease, and that’s the over-acidification of our bodies, everything else is just a symptom of this problem.” Therefore, this diet suggests avoiding acid producers such as meats, fish, grains, legumes, cheese, salt and to eat mostly alkaline foods to balance the pH level7. Alkaline foods include vegetables, herbs, fruit, grains (rice, quinoa), legumes, nuts, seeds and green tea.
This diet is based on pseudo-science and is therefore widely disputed and unsupported by doctors, dieticians and nutritionists, not to mention evidence-based research. The body is built to manage pH regulation through the kidneys and lungs, therefore anyone who has healthy kidneys and lungs, can process acid-producing foods without strain. It is quite clear though, that alkaline-foods and the guidelines of this diet are essentially general healthy eating guidelines and such eating patterns will inevitably result in weight-loss and improved health. The effects therefore cannot be attributed to the effect of pH but rather the well-known and researched effects that antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre and water provide.
4.Blood group diet
Developed by Dr Peter D’Adamo, a naturopathic physician, who says that by eating foods that are right for your blood type, you will feel better, be less likely to store the food as fat and be less likely to develop certain diseases and cancers. He says that blood type is an evolutionary marker that indicates which foods are best suited for your body and which foods can be harmful8.
- Type O: A high-protein diet heavy on lean meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables, and lower in carbohydrates such as grains and beans, and low in dairy.
- Type A: follow a vegetarian diet that is of an organic state, and avoid meat and heavy starches
- Type B: should eat a balanced diet, but they should avoid corn, wheat, buckwheat, lentils, tomatoes, peanuts and sesame seeds to prevent weight gain.
- Type AB: shares some properties with both the A and B types, they’re recommended to eat tofu, seafood, dairy and green vegetables, but avoid meat.
The theory behind this diet is not supported by scientific evidence and has therefore received much criticism from other doctors, dieticians and nutritionists. Many people have found success on this diet in terms of weight loss, digestive health, arthritis etc. but these cannot necessarily be attributed to the specific blood type, but rather healthier eating habits, lower overall kilojoule intake or elimination of foods one may be allergic or intolerant to. Instead of testing for blood type, test for allergies to ensure that you accurately cut out foods and that you do not eliminate foods unnecessarily. It is also important to remember that we are far more unique than just our blood types, and far more needs to be considered when determining dietary needs.
If you would like to follow this diet, it is important to ensure that you still eat a variety of foods and to replace foods that are to be avoided to ensure nutritional completeness e.g. if you are O group and eliminating carbs, you may be deficient in fibre so ensure you consume enough other fibre-rich foods.
DANGERS OF FAD DIETS
Most, but not all FAD diets, promote unbalanced, unhealthy eating habits and don’t meet nutritional recommendations. They provide far fewer calories than normal and result in quick, rapid weight loss mainly from lean muscle mass and water, rather than fat. Many FAD diets are unhealthy and ineffective for long-term weight loss. If your weight is a concern and you would like to improve your health, to do this the right way consult with a dietitian. Dietitians have a 4-year degree and use scientific and evidence-based approaches to help their clients reach individualised goals. Remember that everyone is different, and the approach needs to be tailored to suit that individual’s needs.
Dietitians will factor in various elements such as genetics, family history of diseases, current diseases, nutrient deficiency’s, psychology, family/friend support structure, allergies, intolerances, taste preferences and what’s very important is your lifestyle, life-stage and time-schedule. There are several extremely dynamic dieticians in South Africa, to find one visit The Association of Dietetics South Africa (ADSA) website: http://www.adsa.org.za/Public/FindARegisteredDietitian.aspx.
If you are looking to lose weight, which most of us will be at some stage in our lives, it is important to choose wisely and make sure to use credible sources. Reality is that we lose weight when we take in less energy than what our body uses. The best approach to healthy living and long-term weight loss is to adopt a diet that is consistent with individual’s requirements and becomes part of their lifestyle, instead of following a “on-diet/off-diet” mentality.