How to Spot a Diet Fad

Thanks to diet culture, most Brits have dieted at some point in their life, with the average Brit trying 126 diets in their lifetime, according to a Love Fresh Berries poll carried out in 2020. It goes without saying that the 126 diets tried are not effective or sustainable, so why do people opt for them? These types of diets are often referred to as ‘fads’ and are typically short-lived in those that attempt them. We’re here to help you learn how to spot a diet fad to ensure you’re fuelling your body with the right food that will actually benefit your body.

What is a fad diet?

A fad diet is one that tends to rise rapidly in popularity, promising quick results – normally fat/weight loss based, with very little to no evidence to support the diet. 

Typically fad diets involve omitting certain food groups or ingredients or restricting the times of day that you eat. There’s often a set of complex rules that need to be followed in order to adhere to the diet.

Common Fad Diets

While there are many different types of fad diets, we have laid out some popular ones below and our opinions on them.

Ketogenic diet

A ketogenic (keto) diet is a diet with a very high-fat content, moderate protein and very low carbohydrate content. There are variations on how the diet might be implemented, but by definition, a ketogenic diet will comprise of 75% of calories from fat and only about 10-20% from protein and 5-10% from carbohydrates.

Our body’s primary source of energy is carbohydrates, so when the diet is low in carbohydrates (or when you are starving/fasting or doing intense exercise) our bodies will break down fat to produce something called ketones instead.

Some tissues, like our nervous tissue and red blood cells, can normally only use carbohydrates as energy. Ketones, unlike fatty acids, can cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore provide the brain with energy. If the concentration of ketones reaches a certain point, we say the body is in a state of ketosis.

Would we recommend it?

In short, no.

The ketogenic diet was originally used to help reduce incidences of seizures in epileptic children and has little benefit otherwise.

Any diet that cuts out a whole food group or macronutrient is not something we would recommend. It is extremely restrictive and unsustainable and tends to involve a large amount of saturated fat as well, which can increase your cholesterol levels.

Further, it is not something we would suggest following without the supervision of a medical professional as there are a number of risks associated with it, including low blood sugar levels, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and issues related to gut health.

Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting, often abbreviated to IF, is an umbrella term given to a variety of meal timing schedules to cover various fasting periods.

The fasting periods can be anything from a matter of hours, for example from 8 PM to 12 PM the following day, alternate-day fasting, or calorie restriction on some days and not on others. For example, the 5:2 diet. This is where an individual eats 5-600 kcal/day, two days a week and eats ‘normally’ for the other five days.

The other commonly-adopted form of intermittent fasting is the 16:8 diet, where it is encouraged to fast for 16 hours and to only eat in the allotted 8-hour feeding window, i.e. the aforementioned example of eating only between 12 PM and 8 AM, then fasting from 8 PM – 12 PM.

There is no conclusive evidence to show the proclaimed health benefits of IF at this stage, although the research is ongoing. Currently, it seems to pose as a fad diet that enables those adhering to it to stay in a calorie deficit by skipping meals.

Would we recommend it?

It can be a useful tool for fat loss if it allows you to stay in a calorie deficit. More often than not, restricting your intake in such a way can lead to extreme hunger and mean you’re more likely to binge later in the day, or the week, depending on the type of fasting schedule you’re trialling.

If you find yourself bingeing or constantly thinking about food, this approach is not a sustainable option for you.

Paleo Diet

There was a lot of talk on The Paleo Diet in the 2010s – you may have seen the word plastered around Wholefoods or as a hashtag on Instagram, but what does it actually mean, and where did it come from?

It may seem a new dietary concept, but the paleo (pronounced pay-lee-oh) diet originated back to the palaeolithic era and is also known as the hunter-gatherer or caveman diet, but was adopted in the 1970s as a new trendy way of eating to manipulate your body. It is a diet derived from the diet of those existing in the palaeolithic era.

As such, those following a paleo can ‘only’ eat foods that could have been naturally sourced or hunted at this time;

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Herbs and spices
  • Any healthy fats and oils.

The diet essentially works by reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods but also restricts grains, dairy, legumes, and soy – ingredients that are perfectly fine to be eating on a daily basis.

Would we recommend it?

The diet can be useful for those who are particularly fussy eaters or have certain intolerances or IBS, as, by default, it excludes dairy and legumes – two big triggers.

However, for many, it is unnecessarily restrictive and is no more healthy than a typical ‘balanced’ diet, for example, nor does it speed up any fat loss goals. Everything is fine in moderation, and as mentioned above, restricting foods can lead to binge-like behaviours and is not sustainable on a long-term basis.

5 ways to spot a fad diet

Spotting a nutrition fad can take a bit of getting used to, so we’ve laid out some pointers below:

  • If the outcomes sound too good to be true, they most likely are.
  • If you’re being guaranteed a quick fix or set results in a time period.
  • Lists of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods.
  • Excluding or severely restricting food groups or essential nutrients.
  • Anything with strict, rigid rules to follow.

If you’re contemplating a new diet, and it fits one or more of the above points, it’s best to reconsider what small changes you can make to your current diet/lifestyle that will be sustainable for you rather than a complete diet overhaul that will only last a few weeks. It can also be helpful to take a look at your relationship with food, as often fad diets are utilised by those whose relationship with food could be worked on, or book a call with an FFF Nutritionist today to discuss what the best approach to reaching your goals may be!

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Meghan Foulsham
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Published by Meghan Foulsham

Meghan's fascination with metabolism and the effect of diet on the body covered in her BSc Biochemistry, paired with being a passionate mental health advocate, led her to a Master's degree in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition. Using this, Meghan works with clients to help them reach their goals in the most sustainable way, without sacrificing or risking their mental health.

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