Safe and Dangerous Dieting: The Fad Dieting Epidemic

What Is a Fad Diet?

In recent years, people all over the world have gone to extreme lengths to lose weight. Pills, cleanses, waist-trainers, and many more outrageous products have been advertised to promise weight loss. Common fad diets include the South Beach Diet, Paleo, Hollywood Diet Juice Cleanses, Atkins, Cabbage Soup Diet, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers and many more. The common denominator in all of these weight loss solutions is a quick fix with little effort. Each product or diet promises an easy, quick way to lose weight and get results fast. Even if these diets do yield rapid weight loss, which they often do not, the consequences can be detrimental to both mental and physical health. Oftentimes these diets are unsustainable and lead to eventual weight gain. After a person participates in a fad diet, they may even end up weighing more than they did when they began. Fad diets tend to promote weight-loss pills and powders, or cut out singular foods or food groups. In general, these diets are expensive and ineffective. Fad diets are appealing to the population because it is often simpler for to the dieter to follow a predetermined plan than to do their own research, exercise, and eat well.


Fad Diet vs. A Diet

A “fad diet” is different than a “diet.” A diet does not only mean restricting food or trying to lose weight, it is a term for what a person eats. A diet consists of everything a person eats on a day to day basis, whether or not is is healthy. A person’s diet is different from a fad diet, which is an unhealthy intake of food promising rapid weight loss. In 2013, Psychology Today found that 52% of Americans found paying their taxes simpler than figuring out how to eat heathy.1 With all the inconsistency and misinformation about dieting that the media presents, it can be extremely difficult to separate a fad diet from a healthy, balanced diet. Although advertisements may present fad diets as actually being balanced, day-to-day diets, it is important to distinguish the two in order to maintain a healthy body and mind.

How Did Fad Diets Come About?

Fad diets have grown in popularity as a result of society’s obsession over thin and fit bodies. This obsession for women to be thin and men to be muscular is presented to men and women all over the world, and has been for hundreds of years.
  • Societal pressure. The societal ideal of the thin woman began in the early 1800s when women were depicted as fragile and skinny in famous paintings, while men were depicted as chiseled and lean. As time went on, women and men in movies were nearly all thin, and women in theatre productions often wore waist-trimming corsets.1 Both women and men have become the target of books and manuals about dieting and the trend has continued into media today. The production of more male-focused magazines place pressure on men to have muscular or thin physiques that are often unattainable as well.

  • TV Shows. Reality TV shows like The Biggest Loser give people unrealistic expectations about weight loss and lead them to follow extreme dieting and exercise techniques. In extreme weight loss shows, people exercise multiple times a day and are under constant nutritional supervision by a professional. This lifestyle is not feasible for the average person, and it is not a maintainable or healthy over long periods of time.1 Infomercials about exercise programs and dietary supplements that promise rapid weight loss and transformation saturate television programs.
  • Magazines and Social Media. “Get Abs in 10 days!”, “Lose Weight Fast!” “Get strong and sexy with 5 easy steps!” These titles plague the covers of magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Muscle Insider, Women’s Health, Self, Shape, and on social media pages such as Instagram and Tumblr. Social media exposes people of all ages and genders to physiques that are often unattainable or to “health gurus” that may not be as healthy as they present themselves. Magazines usually feature a centerfold of bodyweight (meaning without added weight) workouts and a few recipes for meals often under 200 calories. These quick fixes falsely tell people that they can lose weight and looklike the women and men in the photos in a short amount of time, without addressing the overall change in lifestyle needed to transform a physique. Additionally, these claims usually lack any scientific evidence, and in reality the “easy” weight loss methods are untrue and unattainable.

Societal pressure, TV shows, magazines, and social media all play a role in the introduction of the fad dieting epidemic by exposing the population to an unattainable standard of body image.

Examples of Fad Diets & Weight Loss Supplements

  • The Cabbage Soup Diet. This fad diet is a seven-day meal plan that advises a person eat soup made out of cabbage, celery, onions, tomato juice, and spices. It prohibits bread, carbonated beverages, carbohydrates (aside from the vegetables in the soup) and alcohol throughout the entire seven days. The diet is low in protein, low in calcium, high in sodium, and lacks essential fats and micronutrients. A low protein diet harms muscle growth, a low calcium diet weakens bones, and a high sodium diet leads to bloating. Weight loss can occur from the extreme restriction of calories, but it will not be sustainable.'

  • The Hollywood Diet and Juice Detoxes/Cleanses. These juicing diets often last two to five days and promise up to 10lbs of weight loss in that short amount of time. They prohibit the dieter from eating any solid foods and allow only juices for meals. The diet claims that the juice sufficiently replaces meals and “detoxifies” the body naturally. In reality, the liver detoxes the body on a daily basis, while a juice cleanse cannot. These diets area low in protein, often high in sugar, low in carbohydrates, low in fats, and therefore lack necessary vitamins and minerals. The weight loss will occur through extreme restriction of calories and can cause loss of water weight, but will also not be sustainable. Drinking juice is not a bad thing; juice can contain multiple servings of vegetables and fruit and is a great way to reach your micronutrient needs. It is only when a person relies on juice for sustenance and does not eat whole foods that juice detoxes become problematic. 

  • Fat Burners and Fat Loss Pills. Many fad diets encourage various fat loss or fat burning pills that promise to aid in weight loss. Usually, these products are expensive and do not prove to be effective. Some of these pills include CLA, Garcinia Cambogia or Green Coffee Bean, and caffeine pills.
  • South Beach Diet and Atkins Diet. These diets are some of the most popular commercial low-carb diet plans. They cut out many carbs aside from some fruits and vegetables. Like other fad diets, they promise results that are not backed up by science and research. In fact, research shows that low carb diets can cause many psychological and physical complications (more information below). 


Why Fad Diets Fail

Fad diets all have one thing in common: they are restrictive and promise short term results. Body fat cannot be lost in a short period of time because your body will burn glycogen from carbohydrates long before it burns body fat, meaning that the body will burn off the energy from food before it will burn actual body fat. Therefore, because the body needs much more time to actually burn body fat, the weight lost in a quick-fix diet will often be water weight and will be regained quickly as soon one stops dieting and returns to eating solid foods or their normal diet. A fad diet will usually instruct the dieter to cut out a type of food or an entire food group, restrict the times he or she can eat, advise only juices, restrict overall caloric intake, or recommend over-exercising. This restrictive period of time can lead eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating.2 Although an extreme diet may produce short term results, most of the time this weight loss is not maintainable due to the mental and physical consequences.


Physical Health Risks

As previously mentioned, fad diets often cut out or restrict entire food groups. Many of the most common fad diets restrict carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Restricting carbohydrates causes blood sugar to drop below normal levels, in a condition known as hypoglycemia. Low blood sugar can cause impeded brain functioning, loss of coordination, loss of muscle, weakness, fatigue, and excessive sweating. Restricting carbohydrates consequently restricts fiber, which is found in fruits and vegetables. Fiber helps the body digest food, so without it, a person can become constipated and susceptible to infections in the digestive tract.3 A poor, low calorie diet can also cause deficiencies in calcium, which can lead to loss of bone mass and joint problems.1

Improper dieting also negatively affects hormones. Hormones control many of the physiological processes that occur in the body including your metabolism, immune system, menstruation in females, and reproduction. Insulin, the hormone that carries glucose (sugar that supplies energy to the brain and therefore affects brain and physical function) to your cells for energy, declines with carbohydrate restriction, which leads to further muscle loss and fatigue. Similarly, the hormone cortisol, known as the “fight or flight” hormone, stimulates energy production from glucose and fats in preparation to fight against internal or external stress. Cortisol is produced when the body is put through stress (in this case, the stress of an improper diet and excessive exercise). If the body is constantly under stress for a prolonged period of time, it continues to release cortisol, which causes decreased muscle mass and increased body fat. Weight-loss supplements increase cortisol because they deliver excess stimulants to the body. The body perceives the stimulants as stress and in turn produces more cortisol. The body reacts to day-to-day stress the same way. Whether it is stress about a diet, appearance, exercise, school, relationships, or a combination of many factors, cortisol is produced as a way to fight the stress. To summarize, a restrictive diet that also includes weight loss supplements increases cortisol levels because the body views the restriction of calories and increased stimulants as stress, which sets the dieter up for weight gain rather than loss. Overall, stress can make you gain weight!4

In addition, continuous dieting can cause adrenal fatigue. The adrenal glands secrete hormones that respond to a person’s emotional, physical, and psychological environments. With too much stress from these environments such as prolonged over-exercising or restrictive and extreme dieting, the adrenals can no longer compensate for the stress and become fatigued. The release of adrenal hormones is decreased, which affects energy levels, mood, cardiovascular systems, sex drive, and metabolism. Stressors of any kind add up and take a major toll on the body’s functioning. A poor diet is a stressor because the body cannot get the proper nutrients it needs to flourish.5

Decreasing caloric intake will also slow down the metabolism. The metabolism is the sum of the chemical processes in the body that allow one to burn calories or fat. The metabolism is never destroyed, but a diet will cause the metabolism to adapt to a lower level of intake, which sets one up for rapid weight regain once a normal diet returns. Rapid weight regain is due to the shock that the slower metabolism receives from a large, rapid increase in the amount and variety of foods that it had been deprived of. In other words, a person’s body goes into starvation mode when he or she deprives it of the proper nutrients it needs to to sustain life to it’s full potential. Therefore, when a dieter gives their body more food, whether that be right after a diet or during a binge, their body will store the excess food as fat because it has adapted to a starvation diet and is trying to help them survive by storing the extra calories. The weight gained typically causes the individual to end up weighing more than they did before the diet began. Because of this rapid decline of metabolism and weight rebound, nutritionists recommend making very small decreases in caloric intake to lose weight, but also making small increases in caloric intake after a dieting period.


Mental Health Risks

When one is restricted from eating a food that they previously were used to eating, it causes an increase of cravings for that food and sometimes even for foods that they never previously liked. The term “diet brain” insinuates that the dieting person will grow and obsession with food and weight, causing extreme psychological stress and therefore high cortisol. A restrictive diet causes the dieter to become more stressed about not being able to eat the foods that they want, when they want. This obsession with food prevents one from being able to focus on the tasks at hand, such as work or school. In addition, focusing on food and hunger can increase irritability and hostility, which can be detrimental to a person’s relationships with others.2 Restricting food and over-exercising will cause an individual to dread physical activity, while a fully fed person will generally feel positively about exercise.


If a person is fatigued because of low blood sugar, they may perform poorly in their physical activity. This poor performance may decrease intrinsic motivation and therefore cause nonadherence to a consistent exercise program or future exercise programs.6 In addition, if a fad diet is not giving a person the results they have been promised or are expecting, it can cause the dieter to lose confidence and develop an unhealthy relationship with food. Unhealthy relationships with food and body image can lead to eating disorders.

Dieting and Sexual Relationships

Physical complications such as fatigue, hormone irregularities, and increased cortisol can negatively affect an individual’s sex life. Psychological complications such as irritability, hostility, and an obsession with food and weight can be distracting and cause tension in a romantic relationship. These mental and physical complications can decrease sex drive, increase stress, and in turn place a strain on sexuality and relationships.


Fad Diet Red Flags: How to Tell if a Diet is Not Healthy

Fad diets pop up everywhere in today’s media and it can be difficult to tell whether or not one is healthy. Some diets are helpful, but many are not. The following are some warning signs that a diet is not healthy to follow:

  • The diet instructs you to cut out entire food groups. Your body thrives with a combination of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Without these macronutrients, you will be depriving your body of the proper micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals it needs to properly function.
  • The description of the diet makes dramatic statements about its effects. These statements may have been disproven by reputable research institutions, or the studies to back it up are not reviewed by other reputable researchers.7
  • The diet pressures you to buy pills or special foods for fat loss. There are no magic pills or magic foods that will make you lose fat; it is simply an advertising tool to sell a product.
  • The diet promises rapid weight loss in a very short amount of time. A healthy weight loss depends on the person and the current weight they are, but an unrealistic promise of losing 20 pounds of weight loss in a few short weeks is a red flag. Not only is rapid weight loss unhealthy, but promising results to every person ignores the physiological differences between individuals. Losing .5 to 2 pounds or around .5% of body fat a week is a realistic, healthy weight loss goal that will usually be sustainable in the long term.7
  • The diet comes from a source without scientific proof of success. There are diets all over the internet that can be posted and shared by anyone, educated or not. Tumblr, Instagram, and personal blogs are common places that uneducated people post diets that are easily accessible to the public. Be aware of the credibility of the source. Engaging in a fad diet means that you are trusting the creator of the diet with your health, so it is important that the diet is verified with official research.
  • The diet uses an extremely strict exercise and meal plan regimen. A healthy diet includes flexibility that allows you to eat and exercise around your schedule. A strict regimen usually will not prove successful because every person runs on their own schedule and they need a flexible diet and workout plan to fit their lifestyle.7


How to Have a Balanced Diet

Fad diets often overlook what is necessary in an overall balanced diet. A diet that cuts out carbohydrates, for example, cuts out many crucial foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains that have fiber, vitamins, and essential minerals found in carbohydrates. A diet that cuts out fats also cuts out necessary omega fatty acids. The concept is simple: think about your diet as a whole. As long as you are consuming an appropriate amount of each macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) and are getting enough micronutrients (vitamins, fiber, and minerals), any foods you want to eat can be a part of an overall healthy diet. Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” (which most fad diets do) demonizes a single food or an entire food group and leads to feelings of guilt around food. As mentioned previously, cutting out food groups can cause many hormonal imbalances and physiological stress, so keeping a balanced diet is key to sustainability.

There is no single magic food that will make you lose weight, because one food will not cover all of the critical nutrients the body needs. Rather than worrying about whether the food you are eating is “good” or “bad,” focus on whether or not you are meeting all of your dietary needs throughout the entire day. For example, you may want to have a serving of ice cream at night. If you have eaten an appropriate amount of proteins, carbohydrates with sufficient fiber, and heart-healthy fats throughout rest of the day, then that ice cream will still be a part of an overall healthy diet. How? The body does not recognize the difference between calories from ice cream and calories from a salad. Calories are calories. What truly matters is the nutritional quality of your overall diet, not one singular food. To lose weight, you must be in a caloric deficit through diet and exercise. A caloric deficit is created by eating less calories than your body burns to maintain your current weight. Those calories can come from whatever foods you would like as long as you are still getting micronutrients (fiber, vitamins, and minerals) and macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats).

A balanced diet also involves a balanced mind. If you are consistently having cravings for sugary foods and are thinking about the food that you are not eating at all times of the day, then your diet is not healthy because it is leading to an unhealthy mind. You must be able to maintain your diet for an extended period of time in order for it to yield a sustainable weight loss while keeping a physically healthy body. Therefore, looking at your overall diet rather than obsessing over particular foods will allow you to maintain freedom in your food choices while still losing weight. In short, too much stress on your body will be counterintuitive to weight loss, happiness, health, and longevity. It is important to consistently have good eating habits and a balanced diet, rather than eating poorly the majority of the time and only having good habits to lose weight to “make up” for poor eating. The term “diet” can be dangerous, because it is often immediately associated with losing weight. Many “go on a diet” but do not stick to it, which may cause them to feel defeated, give up, and eventually cycle back to previous unhealthy habits. Having a balanced diet should be a lifestyle choice, not a temporary fix to make up for poor habits. Balance and moderation are the most important concepts in a diet. Giving your body the foods it needs to function optimally while also treating yourself in a way that ensures you stay mentally sound and satisfied will prove to be the most successful form of sustainable living.







1. Bijlefeld, Marjolijn, and Sharon Zoumbaris. Encyclopedia of Diet Fads: Understanding Science and Society. 2nd ed. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2015. Print.

2. Polivy, Janet. "Psychological Consequences of Food Restriction." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 96.6 (1996): 589-92.

3. Fernstrom, Madelyn. "Americans Need More Fiber in Their Diets." NBC News, 30 Nov. 2006.

4. Talbott, Shawn. The Cortisol Connection. 2nd ed. Alameda: Hunter House, 2007. Print.

5. Wilson, James. Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Petaluma: Smart Publications, 2000. Print.

6. Bukti, Brian, Jeffery Baumstark, and Simon Driver. "Effects of a Carbohydrate-Restricted Diet on Affective Responses to Acute Exercise Among Physically Active Participants." Perceptual and Motor Skills 96 (2003): 607-15.

7. 9 Things to Look For in a Quality Weight Loss Program." ACE Fit. The American Council on Exercise, 2016.

Last Updated: 8 May 2016.