Spotting the Fad Diet (Spoiler: That's All of Them)

We all know what "healthy, realistic weight loss" looks like. So why do commercial diets still promise us so much more?

The American Dietetic Association just released a checklist of signs that the weight loss plan you're about to embark on is actually an unhealthy fad diet. "The bottom line is simple," they say. "If a diet or product sounds too good to be true, it probably is." More specifically, the ADA wants you to skip any diet that promises one or more of the following: 

  • A loss of more than a pound a week. Fast weight loss will likely rob you of muscle and bone.
  • Unlimited amounts of a particular food, while restrictions are placed on other foods.
  • Any program that states you'll lose more weight if you eat foods in specific combinations.
  • Any routine with strict menu options, with little choice or variation.
  • Any program that emphasizes no exercise while dieting.

It's all so common sense-sounding, I almost fell asleep reading the list. Especially #1 -- how often have you heard that it's unrealistic and unhealthy to expect to lose more than about a pound per week? I think every women's magazine includes this sentence in every issue they publish. It may actually be a federal law.

And yet I started Googling around to see what major commercial diet plans and New York Times best-selling diet books are actually promising, in terms of projected weight loss. Oh my stars, do they have some really big hopes and dreams for your bathroom scale.

Some examples: Jenny Craig (Consumer Reports' top-rated commercial diet plan, no less!) boasts of how Carrie Fisher lost 19 pounds in 11 weeks and new celebrity spokesperson Sara Rue lost over 50 pounds in 37 weeks. Nutrisystem has pages upon pages of "Success Stories" from folks who all lost way more than a pound per week, all footnoted with the caveat: "*Results not typical. On Nutrisystem, you can expect to lose at least 1-2 lbs per week. Individuals are remunerated." Translation: Even in their legalese, they're over-promising your weight loss results. Oh and they're paying people to lose these super huge amounts for their ad campaigns. Over in diet book land, The South Beach Diet Supercharged features a dieter who lost 12 pounds in just six weeks on its Amazon page. The Dukan Diet not only over-promises on projected weight loss, it also ticks the ADA's second box by pushing ridic amounts of protein at the expense of other foods. 

You get the idea.

Any diet plan that suggests you can lose more than a pound per week is either flat-out lying or accomplishing that goal through unhealthy means. But you'll be hard-pressed to find a single commercial diet plan or book on the market that doesn't promise or at least strongly suggest (with the requisite "Results Not Typical" disclaimer in tiny print) that you can lose more than a pound per week, and probably it won't even be that hard and you won't even feel deprived, really, they pinky swear it.

Which leads me to the sad conclusion that -- wait for it! -- every commercial diet plan or book is a fad diet. Even the ones who say they so aren't a diet and ask you if you've been frustrated by countless of other diets that haven't worked. Probably especially those. 

The real question is, if we know it's impossible, or at least unhealthy, to try to lose more than a pound per week, why do we keep buying into these false promises? 

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