Why Do We Fall for Diets That Fail Us?

A new day, a new fad diet…or so it seems. Whether in the headlines or plastered across your social newsfeed, there always seems to be a novel eating plan sweeping the nation. It's enough to make anyone's head spin. And when you're trying to lose weight, it's tempting to jump on the bandwagon, any bandwagon, every bandwagon if it's going to be the one to make the difference. After all, if it is so popular, then it must be valid.
Not so fast, though.
In early 2017, U.S. News & World Report ranked 38 fad diets from best to worst. Diets ranking high up on the list were considered safe and nutritious. They are effective for weight loss and chronic disease prevention, topped off with a focus on overall wellness.
The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) stole first place. This plan has the works: it's easy to follow, promotes weight loss and reduces the risk for hypertension, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes—just to name a few.
But here's where it gets interesting. Some of today's biggest names in dieting, including Paleo and Whole30, rounded out the bottom of the rankings list due to their restrictive nature which makes them difficult to follow. Entire food groups are also cut out, effectively diminishing the importance of a well-rounded diet. Experts say these factors are a recipe for disaster.  
The lesson here is that some of the trendiest diets are also the most unsafe. So why do they steal the show?   

Fad Diet 101

The 1930s saw the sour reign of the Grapefruit Diet. By the 70s, Nutrisystem entered the scene, as did SlimFast, complete with its line of shakes, bars and more shakes. The early 2000s brought acclaim for South Beach cookbooks and products. These days, Paleo and Whole30 are firmly cemented in our minds as the "next big thing," thanks in part to its constant, unwavering social media presence.
All of these diets have one thing in common: They are fads. Each diet rules on social trendiness, meaning it's not far off from those bell bottoms you once coveted!
According to Kimberly Gomer, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa, a fad diet is an eating plan that promises quick and magical solutions. "It plays to an audience looking for fast, seemingly easy results," she explains. "The diet isn't always based on science and will not promote health and longevity."
Fad diets usually revolve around weight loss. And while it's a good idea to keep your weight in check, there's a lot more to it. Genetics, lifestyle and existing conditions totally matter; what works for one person might not work for the next. There is no such thing as "one size fits all" when it comes to dieting, weight loss and health.
A fad diet thrives on being hip. It translates into the latest headline or trending hashtag. And it sure knows how to get your attention.

Why Do We Fall For Them?

Let's take it back to the basics: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a "fad" as something that is popular for a short time. It's similar to anything that is viral or trendy. They are also powerful enough to change us.
"People are so attracted to trends because they want to belong and feel connected to others," shares Dr. Coral Arvon, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., L.C.S.W., director of behavioral health and wellness at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa. "Trends set styles, offer guidance and allow others to join in." It's like a password into acceptance.
As humans, we like to be accepted. It makes us feel safe and protected, says the Association for Psychological Science.
But it goes deeper than just feelings. Cell Press reveals that when you don't conform to a certain way of living, your brain jumpstarts neural responses that are similar to error signals. Your brain ultimately thinks you are making a mistake. Conversely, when conformity does happen, those same neural signals mimic reinforcement learning. This type of learning focuses on what actions can maximize rewards, according to Frontiers in Neuroscience, which, in this case, means adopting certain behaviors and attitudes in hopes of being rewarded by gaining acceptance to a health-conscious group of peers. 
Jonah Berger, author of "Contagious: Why Things Catch On", attributes trends to a powerful psychological phenomenon called "social proof." This line of thinking leads people to believe that if other people are doing something, it must be a good idea. Social proof is further enhanced when it's done by people that we know or trust, such as friends or celebrities; Dr. Arvon adds that this is especially true when it's people we want to be like.
Your aforementioned beloved bell bottoms are the perfect example: When a certain style takes off, it becomes a form of social currency. When you take on that trend, it shows everyone—friends, passersby on the street, family, your doctor—that you're in the know. The result is automatic feelings of acceptance and comfort.
Diets are similar. At its core, a fad diet is a trend. It's a popular way of eating that is linked to a common desired outcome of being healthy and at a weight that makes you feel good. But unlike clothing or gadgets, fad diets can take a toll on your body. They can skew your perception of what's good for you—and only you.

How Fad Diets Reach Your Plate

With the overweight and obesity rate in the U.S. surpassing 70 percent, Gomer speculates that many people aren't succeeding at losing weight. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to frustrated feelings and a borderline desperate search for solutions.
Fad diets speak to these frustrations. They swoop in on a train of social influence, powered by word of mouth. They're clothed in the things we notice: television, magazines, blog posts. And when they target the audience's specific needs—in this case, weight loss—they seem even more appealing. This is exactly how things successfully catch on, according to Berger.
These days, being "social" doubles as web time. Social networking is our source of inspiration and influence. In a way, our knowledge of trends lives in a glowing screen.
This is especially true for food. Michigan State University Extension found that 49 percent of adults that use the Internet learn about food through social networking. Websites, apps and blogs are responsible for informing 40 percent of online adults about food. Clearly, we're paying attention to what and how others are eating.
Then there is the impact of people we admire, such as actors and famous bloggers. Consider how the term "80/20 diet" spiked when linked to Victoria's Secret supermodel Gisele Bundchen or the Master Cleanse's resurrection back into popular culture thanks to Beyoncé. "Fad diets often have a celebrity spokesperson or an icon talking about them," says Dr. Arvon, "People admire these icons and, in turn, want to be like them." Whether we're conscious of it or not, these official or unofficial endorsements pique our interest and add a degree of legitimacy to the theories behind certain eating habits.

How to Recognize an Unsafe Diet

Following a fad diet isn't the same as trying out a popular recipe or single ingredient. Falling for a fad diet can have a lasting negative impact, both mentally and physically, due to their often-restrictive nature. Your understanding of weight loss can also be thrown for a loop as you work to adhere to strict rules.
So, how do you avoid falling into the fad diet trap? Start by learning how to spot one.
  1. Remember that a good diet is one that is sustainable for the long haul. Gomer suggests looking out for diets that involve lots of prep or rules that don't seem practical. She also recommends being wary of anything that cuts out entire food groups. Strict restriction is a dead giveaway.
  2. Keep an eye out for buzzwords. "Easy," "quick" and "fast" are red flags. Anything that mentions "good" and "bad" food—instead of portions—is probably a fad diet.
  3. Pay attention to who's promoting it. Is it backed by a retail company? Does it require the purchase of a product? This can include anything from a drink to a meal subscription. Do your research and ask questions. Lots of them.
  4. Take a step back and look at who is influencing you. Frontiers in Neuroscience reports that we're more likely to adopt the views of others when we assume that they have more knowledge of the situation. Check that you are making decisions based on your ­needs, not someone else's.
Noticing the way you adopt habits is also crucial. For SparkPeople member NITEMAN3D, constant awareness and reinforcement is key in maintaining healthy eating habits in the long run. Using SparkPeople helped him realize this enough to stop following fad diets and start thinking about how his daily healthy habits benefit his overall health. "The threat [of disease, such as pre-diabetes,] makes it even easier to enter my information into the trackers daily," he shares.
SparkPeople member LADYNIGHTSTORM echoed a similar thought. "In becoming fully active on SparkPeople, I've learned what works best for me—and that's limiting complex cards, but not truly restricting them," as is the case in a few popular dieting plans. She also adds that keeping a food diary and exercising three days a week also helps her constantly work toward a healthy life. Again, it's all about finding healthy habits that work for you.
Fad diets will always be around. They'll come and go and while you can't make them disappear, you can certainly change how they affect you. It comes down to the looking at the bigger picture, far beyond the trend. Remember, if it's too good to be true—it probably is!