There have been many types of diets, each new trend trying to find just the right kind of diet for everyone. Beyond the basics of what constitutes healthy meals, there are philosophies of what to eat and when to eat for building muscle, or to maintain, increase, or decrease body weight. While there are many good ideas and solid practices out there, some of the “fad” diets have proven controversial, either because they did not live up to their hype or because they were even harmful.
What Makes a Good Diet?
What goes into a dietary trend is based on the principles of healthy eating, which should provide a foundation for any kind of diet before any variations come into play. Medical News Today explains that the best diets entail eating the right balance of foods, from all of the five main food groups: whole grains, fat, sugar, dairy, protein, and fruits and vegetables.1
Whole grains, such as brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and even popcorn, are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. To strike the right balance, people should eat at least three ounces of whole grains every day.2
After whole grains, fruits and vegetables are also high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber; regular consumption of greens can help guard against the development of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.3 The consensus on fruits and vegetables is that five portions have to be consumed every day, in either fresh, frozen, canned, or dried form. A “portion” refers to a large fruit, like an apple, banana, or mango, or it could refer to three tablespoons of vegetables. A glass of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice would also suffice.
Protein, Dairy, and Balance
Protein is essential for building and repairing tissue in the body. The same foods that are rich in protein also offer vital minerals (zinc, magnesium, and iron), and B vitamins.
Proteins are so important to nutrition that a balanced diet will be as much as 25 percent protein, which can come from a number of foods:
Dairy products, like milk, cheese, and yogurt, are good sources of calcium, which helps to build healthy teeth and bones. People who do not eat animal-based foods can still get their calcium from broccoli, cabbage, and soy milk, which have added calcium. Butter and cream tend to be listed as dairy products, but nutritionally speaking, they are usually considered sources of protein or fats and sugars.
When it comes to healthy eating, the World Health Organizations recommends that people strike a balance between the right bodyweight (based on age, gender, and other factors) and energy consumption. To that point, it is a good idea to scale back on consuming total fats (such as whole milk and chicken with the skin) for energy and push for more unsaturated fats (like olive oil and salmon).5
Diets Too Good to Be True
With the basics of what makes a healthy diet so well known, the question arises of what new combinations and variations are possible, especially as science uncovers newer understandings of what makes different people and different lifestyles healthy.
However, some innovations are much less beneficial. They can be poorly thought out, poorly marketed, or simply “too-good-to-be-true” scams trying to be the next big thing in the healthy lifestyle industry (of which “health, nutrition and weight loss” is projected to be worth $277 billion in 2017).6
Some of the most egregious of these offenders are what are known as “fad diets,” nutrition regimens that promise easy, fast weight loss (or gain) or muscle mass. In reality, however, such diets are almost always unhealthy and unbalanced. Marketers of fad diets target people who want to reach their desired weight or mass without exercise, encouraging their targets to think about short-term gains instead of long-term consistency and health. At best, fad diets are merely ineffective; at worst, they can damage health.7
Diets that claim to show immediate results seem to push a company’s product(s) or that are vague and evasive about the science behind their formulas are most likely fad diets. Examples can include high-protein diets, which call for consuming large amounts of protein (such as eggs or meat) to build muscle and lose weight. However, to build muscle strength, people should actively exercise and focus on weight training, not just eat large amounts of protein. The body does need daily protein, but regularly exceeding this amount can damage the kidneys and the liver. Followers of high-protein diets may be encouraged by early weight loss, but this is usually just water loss, not fat loss. The Livestrong Foundation explains that water loss happens when a person consumes too few carbohydrates, which depletes the body’s glycogen stores; the water loss manifests as “a quick loss of several pounds,” which is why fad diets and other forms of “get-thin-quick” programs rely on unwitting consumers being duped by the initial results. Losing more than two pounds per week is a sign of water loss, not of excess fat.
Mayo Clinic breaks down more problems with high-protein diets, such as how they restrict carbohydrate intake to the point that the body does not get enough fiber, which can cause anything from bad breath to constipation.8
High-protein diets can work, if the protein is chosen carefully. Processed meats (meat that has been artificially modified through smoking, curing, or the addition of salt or preservatives to extend its shelf life or change its taste) are a bad idea; soy protein, beans, lean beef, skinless poultry, and fish are better choices.9 Similarly, processed carbs (sugars and starches that are derived from natural whole foods but have been chemically altered for taste or longevity) should not be part of a diet, but high fiber and nutrient-heavy carbs, like whole grains, vegetables, and fruit, will help.
A high-protein diet is an example of a “crash diet,” which typically involves a dramatic reduction of calories, sometimes recommending as few as 500 calories a day (selling the idea of achieving weight loss in as little amount of time as possible). Crash diets are sometimes paired with other trendy diet fads, like juice cleanses or supplements, especially if such products are touted as “replacements” for exercise and other lifestyle improvements. WebMD notes that being asked to invest in another product is usually a sign that the diet itself is untrustworthy.10
What crash diets really do is trick the brain into thinking that the body is starving. The sudden loss of calories forces the brain to use the accumulated carbohydrate supply (glycogen), which leads to water loss and temporary weight loss. Water loss deprives the body of vital nutrients it needs, leading to a number of short-term deficiencies and long-term problems, such as osteoporosis (mineral depletion) and anemia (iron depletion). Diets devoid of the right amount of calories can also deprive the body of electrolytes, like sodium and potassium. Without enough of those, nerve and muscle functions are damaged, and the brain cannot properly regulate heartbeat, which increases the risk of a heart attack.11
The danger of tricking the brain into thinking that the body is starving is that the metabolic system will automatically slow down in order to burn calories at a slower rate and conserve whatever fat it has stored. This is in order to conserve energy until sufficient nutrition is acquired, and nutrition levels are restored. However, people who are in a crash diet will eventually hit a plateau of weight loss, where it becomes harder and harder to continue to lose weight. Because of this, most people at this stage start to put on weight, making it increasingly harder to find the right balance.12
Crash diets can wreak havoc on physical health, but they can also upset mental health and overall wellbeing. The body needs nutrients to make energy; crash dieters who do not get enough of those nutrients from calories feel moody and lethargic. The weight fluctuations can lead to or exacerbate depression, body dysmorphia (a mental illness where the person is obsessively focused on perceived imperfections in physical appearance), as well as eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
Diets and Data
As TIME magazine points out, a diet that can “deliver weight loss on a long-term basis requires [lots of] reliable data.”13 Researchers from McGill University analyzed existing research on a number of celebrity diets (like the Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets) to discover which diet was not only the most effective, but also enjoyed the greatest evidence to back it up, with a special focus on long-term viability.
Despite people in the United States and Canada spending over $65 billion on famous and obscure diets that promise to help them lose weight, only 12 studies were found to be both well-designed and scientifically robust. “Weight loss is obviously a long-term issue,” said the study’s lead author, but most of the “very few well-done studies” settled for examining the short-term impact of the diets in question.
The best studies (as chosen by the researchers) showed that none of the four famous diet plans resulted in significant weight loss, and none of them were notably better than the others at keeping weight down for a year or more. All four of the diets were able to help dieters lose about 5 percent of their starting body weight. The Weight Watchers diet was better than average in losing weight, but that diet, the Atkins diet, and the Zone diet “resulted in similar weight loss on average.” Furthermore, after two years, people who were on the Atkins or Weight Watchers diet regained some of their lost weight.
The researchers failed to find substantial differences between the diets, pointing out that the risk factors for heart disease (high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and blood sugar levels) were similarly unaffected by the contrasting diets.
The Weight Watchers Diet
The McGill researchers noted that the similarity of the different kinds of diets shouldn’t dissuade dieters who want to put in the effort to lose weight. Since the diets offer similar results, people would be best advised to go with the diet that complements their lifestyle and then stick with that diet.
For example, the American Psychological Association writes that adhering to a weight loss plan is markedly easier with social support.14 To that end, for people who work better in groups than they do on their own, and who may need some external motivation and accountability, Weight Watchers’ group-based, behavior-changing approach would be ideal. In a study of overweight and obese men and women who were randomly assigned to a self-help program or Weight Watchers, which entailed a food plan, an activity plan, and a “cognitive restructuring behavior modification plan,” scientists writing in the JAMA journal found that “Weight Watchers participants lost more than three times the pounds of [a control] self-help group the first year.” Furthermore, the Weight Watchers group shed an average of almost 10 pounds compared to the self-help group, which lost just three pounds on average. Both groups had regained weight after two years, but the self-help participants were back at their starting weight; the Weight Watchers participants weighed six pounds less than they did when they started.15
While Weight Watchers might be the diet for people who need help in their weight loss journey, the other programs (like the Atkins, Zone, and South Beach diets) are better suited for individuals who trust themselves to stick to a plan that can last for several months. For example, people following the South Beach diet don’t have a “food list” because the South Beach diet does not have any hard and fast rules, according to SmartCooky. In Phase 1 of the diet, people should cut out bread, pasta, rice, certain fruits, and other sources of carbohydrates; in Phase 2, however, after the weight goal has been achieved, you can “slowly” include some of the Phase 1-excluded foods. This may not be an advisable course of action for someone who requires help and accountability in their diet, so Weight Watchers might be a better choice than the South Beach plan.
As SmartCooky says of the South Beach diet, the rules are flexible and the diet allows for the occasional bending (or even breaking) of the plan, as long as the person on the diet is diligent enough to stick to the system in the long run.16
Is the Atkins Diet for Everyone?
One of the most famous celebrity diets is the Atkins diet, named after Dr. Robert Atkins, a cardiologist who was inspired to create a diet for his patients after his own nutritional experiments with weight loss proved successful.
The Atkins diet is based on reducing carbohydrate intake, increasing vitamin and mineral intake, and adding regular exercise to the mix. Atkins was of the opinion that many people do not recognize how much carbohydrates, as well as sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, add to unintentional weight gain.
When a person is on the Atkins Diet, the body’s metabolism burns its own stored fat deposits for fuel instead of burning glucose. This switch is known as ketosis. When glucose levels run low, insulin levels are also low, and this is when ketosis would normally come into play. Medical News Today explains that low glucose levels are what makes the body burn through its own fat stores to produce energy.17
Low glucose levels influence low insulin levels, which we feel just before we eat. Upon consuming food, the glucose levels rise, which causes the insulin levels to also rise. Refined carbohydrates (the sugars and starches that do not exist in nature and are chemically processed for flavor and longevity) have high glucose content, which enters the blood very quickly. Carbohydrates that are not refined (which are sometimes referred to as “good carbs”) have lower amounts of glucose, and as such, they do not have quite the same impact on the glucose levels in the blood. During ketosis, some of the fat stored in the cells in the human body are transferred to the blood.
Sticking with the Atkins Diet
As Atkins himself saw it, a low-carbohydrate diet gives its followers a “metabolic advantage” because their bodies burn more calories than they would on other diets. The Atkins diet also focuses on “net carbs,” the total amount of carbohydrates minus fiber and sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are substances that come from plant products, like berries and fruits, and the carbohydrates in them are refined and processed.18
Sugar alcohols have a limited effect on blood sugar levels, but the best kinds of carbs are those that have low glycemic loads. Additionally, Atkins believed that the best intake of saturated fat should account for a maximum of 20 percent of all consumed calories, and the diet reflects this.
There are four phases to the Atkins diet are:
- Induction: limiting calorie consumption from carbohydrates to 20 grams every day and focusing primarily on salad and vegetables
- Ongoing weight loss: adding foods rich in fiber and nutrients as additional sources of carbohydrates until weight loss plateaus; when it does, reduce five grams of carbs from the everyday intake until the weight loss resumes again, slowly
- Pre-maintenance: increasing carbohydrate intake by 10 grams every week until the weight loss becomes gradual
- Lifetime maintenance: adding a broad range of carb sources and carefully tracking weight loss; if weight increases, slow down on daily carbohydrate intake, as well as any carbohydrates introduced in the pre-maintenance stage
As with any diet, the Atkins diet is most effective when it is followed diligently. In the early 2010s, says Medical News Today, around 10 percent of the adult population of the United States was on the low-carbohydrate diet, but rising trends in obesity suggested that not too many people stuck with it after the honeymoon period. Repeated research has found that most of the people who made a good start with the Atkins diet dropped out of the diet after two or three years. Results published in the JAMA journal noted that people who stayed with the diet tended to have better blood pressure levels and cholesterol levels, and lost the most weight compared to people who went with other diets.19
The Zone Diet
The other popular diet is the Zone diet, which, like the Atkins diet, focuses on reducing carbohydrate intake. Where the Zone diet differs is in its emphasis on protein consumption. The philosophy of the Zone diet is that it will “reset [the] metabolism” of the people who follow it, protecting them from chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Unlike other low-fat diets, the Zone diet is higher in fat and protein, including meat and poultry for every meal, as well as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Milk and many dairy products are limited, as are fruit juices, pasta, and rice, among other grain foods.
The Zone diet plans for 30 percent of consumed calories to come from protein, 30 percent to come from fat, and 40 percent to come from carbohydrates, like beans, a number of fruits, whole grains, and vegetables. The meals in the Zone diet are carefully balanced, so the protein and carbohydrates are taken in proportion to better control the body’s insulin levels.
Everyday Health provides a sample dinner in the Zone diet:
- 5 ounces of lean hamburger meat
- 1 slice of low-fat cheese
- 1 slice each of tomato, lettuce, and onion
- 1 piece of whole grain bread
- A small serving of fruit
Will the Zone Diet Work for Everyone?
For people who want variety in their diet, the Zone diet offers a wider range of options compared to other high-protein diets. Once followers are aware of which foods to limit, the Zone diet is usually easier to stick to than other diets. It also encourages more frequent eating – small meals five or six times a day.20
Nutritionally, the Zone diet’s promotion of healthy fats and limited sugar intake, while pushing whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins, is useful in stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing the craving to eat. Lastly, a doctor speaking to Everyday Health says that the Zone diet’s “achievable weight loss” is one of its biggest advantages.
On the other hand, the Zone diet’s exclusion of dairy products limits the amount of calcium that a follower will consume. There are many non-dairy foods that contain calcium, such as white beans, canned salmon, and sardines, but people on the Zone diet will have to carefully monitor their calcium levels.21 Similarly, cutting foods out of the Zone diet will mean that some nutrients will take a hit, specifically fiber, vitamin C, and folic acid.
While this diet allows for a great deal of variation, the 30-30-40 breakdown of calories from protein, fat, and carbohydrates might cause problems for dieters who need different nutritional balances to remain healthy and lose weight.
Kidney and Calorie Risks
As with other high-protein diets, people who are at risk for developing chronic kidney disease might damage their kidneys by maintaining a protein-heavy Zone diet.22 The fats recommended by the Zone diet are healthy, but people who have problems with their blood pressure and cholesterol might struggle with the amount of fat they have to consume as part of the diet.
The total number of calories that should be consumed every day depends on dozens of factors, such as gender, age, height, current weight, daily levels of activity, metabolic health, and others. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends an average of 1,600-2,400 calories per day for adult women (which does not include women who are pregnant or nursing), and 2,000-3,000 calories every day for adult men.23 However, the Zone diet’s caloric restriction means that its followers will be getting fewer than 1,200 calories every day, which can result in regular hunger pangs and difficulty maintaining the diet. As a result of this, the Zone diet is not the easiest diet to stick to; cutting out common foods like rice and pasta means that a lifetime commitment to the diet will be a significant challenge for many people.
This is true for dieting in general; unlike fad diets that advocate unhealthy eating habits in order to achieve overnight results (like the so-called ketogenic diet, which TIME magazine says is an extreme form of dieting that reduces daily carb intake to as little as 30 grams, the equivalent of a small apple), real diets take time, focus, and persistence.24 They also do not exist in isolation; for weight loss to be successful, the diets have to be part of a holistic approach, involving regular and frequent exercise, lifestyle changes, and other approaches. In combination, this method – not a “lose weight now” diet, and not a diet that pushes you to the brink of starvation – will be the best way to lose weight properly and nutritiously.
Back to Guides
- “What Is Healthy Eating? What Is a Healthy Diet?” (June 2015). Medical News Today. Accessed April 1, 2017.
- “Choosing Whole Grains.” (July 2014). Mayo Clinic. Accessed April 1, 2017.
- “Fruit, Vegetables, and Cancer Prevention: A Review of the Epidemiological Evidence.” (1992). Nutrition and Cancer. Accessed April 1, 2017.
- “How Much Protein for a Fat Loss Diet for Men?” (n.d.) SFGate. Accessed April 1, 2017.
- “Diet.” (n.d.) World Health Organization. Accessed April 1, 2017.
- “Health & Wellness Is the Next Trillion Dollar Industry.” (December 2016). Women’s Marketing, Inc. Accessed April 2, 2017.
- “Fad Diets.” (n.d.) University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Accessed April 2, 2017.
- “Are High-Protein Diets Safe for Weight Loss?” (March 2015). Mayo Clinic. Accessed April 2, 2017.
- “What Is Processed Meat?” (October 2015). BBC. Accessed April 2, 2017.
- “9 Signs You’re on a Fad Diet.” (n.d.) WebMD. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “Why a Crash Diet Isn’t a Healthy Solution.” (n.d.) Fitday. Accessed April 2, 2017.
- “Losing Water Weight vs. Fat.” (February 2015). Livestrong Foundation. Accessed April 2, 2017.
- “Which Fad Diet Is Best for Weight Loss?” (November 2014). TIME. Accessed April 2, 2017.
- “How Social Support Can Help You Lose Weight.” (n.d.) American Psychological Association. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “Weight Loss with Self-help Compared with a Structured Commercial Program.” (2003). JAMA. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “South Beach Diet: The Good and Bad Sides of Carbs and Fats.” (February 2017). SmartCooky. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “What is the Atkins Diet? What Are the Benefits of the Atkins Diet?” (September 2014). Medical News Today. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “What Are Sugar Alcohols?” (n.d.) Joslin Diabetes Center. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “Atkins Is Best Diet Around, Says Stanford University Study.” (March 2007). Medical News Today. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “The Zone Diet.” (July 2010). Everyday Health. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “Eighteen Surprising Dairy-Free Sources of Calcium.” (April 2014). Greatist. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “High-Protein Diets: Potential Effects on the Kidney in Renal Health and Disease.” (December 2014). American Journal of Kidney Diseases. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level.” (n.d.) Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Accessed April 3, 2017.
- “You Asked: Should I Try the Ketogenic Diet?” (December 2016). TIME. Accessed April 3, 2017.