What is a Fad Diet?

What is a Fad Diet?

What is a Fad Diet?

"That is one of the biggest dangers of cookbook [nutrition]: we stop thinking, searching, analyzing, because we follow the guidelines." - adapted from Dr. Martin Blaser, Missing Microbes


I don't know about you, but I hear the term Fad Diet or Diet Trend all the time. But what does that really mean? There are definitely some dangerous diet recommendations that should be properly classified as Fad Diets but sometimes it seems like any new eating framework is automatically termed a 'Fad.' But is that really the correct approach?

Here are some of the pointers from a basic Nutrition textbook to help identify a Fad Diet:

- The promoters of the diet claim that the program is new, improved or based on some new discovery; however, no scientific data are available to support these claims.

- The program is touted for its ability to promote rapid weight loss or body fat loss, usually more than 2 pounds per week, and may include the claim that weight loss can be achieved with little or no physical exercise. 

- The diet includes special foods and supplements, many of which are expensive and or difficult to find or can be purchased only from the diet promoter. Common recommendations for these diets include avoiding certain foods, eating only a special combination of certain foods, and including "magic" foods in the diet that "burn fat" and "speed up metabolism."

- The diet may include a rigid menu that must be followed daily or may limit participants to eating a few select food each day. Variety and balance are discouraged, and restriction of certain foods (such as fruits and vegetables) is encouraged. 

- Many programs promote supplemental foods and/or nutritional supplements that are described as critical to the success of the diet. They usually include claims that these supplements can cure or prevent a variety of health ailments or that the diet can stop the aging process. 

I think those are actually some pretty good guidelines.  The problem however is that they are not often used to determine if something should in fact be classified as a Fad Diet. Instead any new recommendation or 'diet' is treated as a Fad. The term seems to be applied with a 'shoot first, ask questions later' mentality - is it different from the USDA prescriptions? Then it's a Fad. 

In some ways this makes sense, there are so many diets that come and go on a regular basis; so many diet trends, recommendations and wonder foods that come out every year that it's hard to know which ones actually have validity. On top of that people have a tendency to hear part of the diet prescription and run with it, without fully understanding or researching it. Suddenly you have a game of Telephone and what might have begun as a reasonable concept is transformed into a jumble of half-facts and all out falsities. Nutrition professionals don't necessarily have the time to look into the validity of each and every claim. It's easier to just declare everything a Fad and be done with it. 

Except that there are some dietary recommendations that are actually scientifically based and should perhaps be given a bit more attention. It is unnerving when something new comes along, but the truth is that the even USDA recommendations are themselves ever changing, not necessarily based on the most up to date information, and wrought with conflicting interests; even the Mediterranean Diet, which is now touted by so many health and nutrition professionals as healthy, was at one time a Fad Diet that ran counter to the common nutritional advice at the time. 

'New' does not necessarily mean 'better' nor does it automatically mean 'wrong.' If we are not willing to take in new ideas, learn, grow and adapt we are not really upholding the concept that we are a scientifically based field. Scientific concepts are not firm, some things are held more firm than others but those things have been tested and retested and retested and retested time and time again. Nutrition/nutritional science is a new field. It is also a field that is not purely scientifically based, it is influenced by human emotion and vested interests. This means that we need to be more careful about challenging and questioning nutritional advice, both the new 'fads' and the old standards. We have to be willing to test new and old hypotheses. 

Given the current state of health in the US I think it's pretty clear that we haven't found all of the answers, not by a long shot. We as a species have been around for a long time, the gross majority of which we did not have any sort of guidelines regarding what to eat and yet we managed to not only survive but thrive. 

So why are we now steadfastly committed to certain guidelines and easily dismissive of others? I have my own ideas, but I think we should be asking this question more often instead of quickly brushing aside any new information that may seem counter to what we have always believed, whether or not that belief was properly founded. 

The Fad of today might be the Standard Wisdom of tomorrow.