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The Fad Five: Top Signs That Your Diet is a Bust

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

Stonewashed jeans. Member’s Only jackets. Parachute pants. Just as (bad) clothes come and go, so do diets. Fad diets, that is. Diets that promise unrealistic results or seem too good to be true probably are.

When you have weight to lose, finding a healthy diet to follow can be a challenge. With so many choices it’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s really legit. A cursory internet search can turn up pages of instructions for hundreds of diets to melt away any imaginable amount of weight. Unfortunately it’s the flashy fad diets, not the sensible plans, which so often attract prospective dieters.

It’s tempting to want to have your cake, eat it, and then make it disappear overnight, so to speak. Reunions, vacations and big nights out can drive even the most health conscious to try a fad’s quick fix. Fad diets aren’t only frustrating as well as a waste of time, they can be dangerous, too. So if you’re looking to lose weight, read up to make sure the diet you choose isn’t a fleeting fad.

Big Loss, Real Fast
Promises of miraculous weight loss in an even more miraculous amount of time (think: ten pounds in a week) is your instant tip-off to a fad. Who wouldn’t be tempted by a diet that claims to whittle away an entire winter’s worth of eating indiscretions over the course of a week? Most people who try extreme weight loss diets know they can’t follow them for long (for example: juice for every meal). Usually the plan is to lose the weight quickly for a big event, then discontinue the diet. And that’s just the problem. After returning to regular eating, so do the pounds. Rapid weight loss usually means water and muscle loss—not the fat that jiggles in your middle. What’s more, losing weight too quickly can make you cranky, reduce your sex drive, and make you less productive at work.

The reality is real weight loss takes time. Weight lost on fad diets is almost always temporary. A healthy rate of weight loss is one to two pounds per week. Plus, anybody who has lost weight can tell you: it’s not just about the diet, it’s about maintaining what you lose. If you lose weight too quickly you’ll not only put yourself in an unhealthy situation, but you’ll be far less likely to keep the pounds off since you didn’t learn to make healthy choices during weight loss.

Drop Pounds by Dropping a Food Group
Any diet that suggests you eliminate a food group is bogus. Take, for example, the embattled Atkins diet which strictly limits carbohydrates. At first, bacon, eggs and cheese for meals sounds like a dream. But after a few days, biscuits and muffins seem to occupy your every thought. When you are missing out on nutrients, your body will be sure to let you know. Soon, you’ll be binging on bagels and the pounds you lost will be back…plus a few. What’s worse, research suggests that diets that don’t allow for all food groups can also increase your risk for developing a chronic disease later. And for people with a pre-existing chronic disease like diabetes, irreversible damage can be done with an unbalanced diet such as Atkins.

Your body is designed to use the benefits from the variety of nutrients found in proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. By cutting out an entire food group, your body doesn’t have the fuel it needs to operate at peak performance. Look for diets that not only encourage you to enjoy all food groups, but also give guidance for how much from each to eat.

Results Not Typical
Any diet that relies on special pills, foods or supplements to help melt away the pounds should be met with extreme skepticism. No doubt you’ve seen the infomercials which showcase a split pane view of the formerly frumpy transformed into beautiful people. Ever look closely at those ads? While the diet company is hoping you’re being impressed by the swimsuit svelte miracle dieter, a tiny “results not typical" disclaimer is inscribed at the bottom of the screen. An almost-believable new trend for fad diets is the endorsement by medical doctors or so-called health experts. Celebrities even like to get in on the endorsements, too. Unfortunately, there is still no magic weight loss pill, no matter how much you’d be willing to pay.

Just remember this: a solid diet doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to be successful, and there are never any real guarantees in weight loss. Dieting the healthy way is hard work; some weeks you lose, some weeks, you don’t. But unlike with fad diets, your reward for the hard work will be sweet. Not only will you lose weight, but you’ll also develop a healthy way of eating for life, and slash your chronic disease risk significantly.

The Constant Craving
It’s a common misconception that if you’re hungry, then your diet is probably working. Nothing could be further from the truth: if you’re hungry, you’ll probably bottom out and eat everything in sight at some point, creating a major weight loss setback. True, many dieters got into trouble in the first place by eating when they thought they were hungry (but were really bored, angry or tired). But if you find that you’re constantly and legitimately hungry, then there’s something wrong with your diet, not you. Too few calories and the subsequent nagging hunger is often a sure sign you’re following a fad. Even though you should be shaving calories to loose weight, a solid diet allows for enough calories for you to live your active lifestyle and still feel great while you lose.

When you’re following a healthy diet, you should actually feel more energized, since you’ve likely made improvements to the quality of the foods you’re eating. If you’re feeling hungry and weak, add more calories to your day with lean proteins, low fat dairy, whole grain carbohydrates as well as fruits and vegetables. Also, utilizing a hunger scale (with “10” being starving, and “1” being not hungry at all) can help you gauge your level of hunger, helping you learn to trust your body to tell you when it’s time to eat. And if you find that three meals a day isn’t keeping your blood sugar from getting too low and you from getting too hungry, spread your food into six mini-meals so you’ve always got something in your stomach. Snacking (healthy snacking, that is!) is allowed!

Good Food, Bad Food
Any diet that requires strict adherence to a specific list of “good” foods to survive on and “bad foods” to avoid is another way to flag to a fad. In a sensible diet, all foods can fit—but obviously, some are better than others. Even so-called “bad foods” like chocolate, chips and beer can be a part of a weight loss diet…if you watch how often and how much. Life is filled with guilty pleasures to enjoy once in a while (like chocolate chips and beer) and a healthy diet should include wiggle-room to include a few of your personal, if indulgent, favorites. Likewise, with “good foods,” there’s nothing magical about any one edible. So if a diet touts, say, cottage cheese as a “good” food that you should eat every day to ensure weight loss, and you hate cottage cheese, there’s no reason to choke down every curd.

A healthy diet should be enjoyable and flexible. When you are able to incorporate a few treats on occasion, you’ll feel less deprived and will be better able to stick to your diet long enough to get to your goal and beyond. And if you fill your diet with plenty of whole grains, lean proteins, low fat dairy and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, you’ll have all the “good” foods you need.

So skip the fads and look for diets that promote slow, steady weight loss and are based on making balanced choices from all food groups. Set a realistic goal for the short term, as well as the long term, and reward yourself (but not with food!) when you accomplish your goal. Cardiovascular exercise, of course, is a critical part of weight loss, so if your workout has gotten stale pick something new to energize your routine. And don’t overlook emotional support (grab a diet buddy for accountability). Studies show that it’s easier to make healthy choices when you are surrounded by people who strive to do the same.

Armed with a little information and a healthy plan, you’ll have those last few pounds healthily whittled away for good.