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! 
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Member Comments

Very good article. Report
Thank you Report
I got I have tried them all, and after all that I have learned from Spark that it's a lifestyle change. Thanks for sharing! Report
I tend to fall for diets celebrities tout. Why? Because they look so fit and attractive. I should know better if you consider I have tried so many programs for decades after decade to no avail. But I think, "Now THIS is the one that will be the answer..." Report
I have learned through Spark People that fade diets and regular diets just to not work or do not sustain weight loss. Life style changes is what works for me. Report
Good article, thanks. Report
Great article Report
I'm glad I found WW when I was 21. I've been doing it ever since, so it's not a fad. Report
This is a great article! And, let's be honest, eating a well rounded healthy diet is not really that tasty, so becomes Unsatisfying, which makes people even more attracted to "quickee" eating plans... it is amusing when someone praises an eating plan on here, but admits to stopping and starting, over and over again. Because it does not satisfy...... Report
I'm eating a real whole food diet with minimal processed foods.

At 90% of my meals I eat 4-6 oz of meat or 2-3 eggs, usually a potato or sweet potato (but not always) and 2-3 servings or colourful veg at each meal.

It is low in sugar, breads, baked goods and high sugar fruits.

It works for me helping to keep my blood sugars stable and my energy levels up. Report
I have never been on a fad diet. I eat everything and lost 47 pounds in 18 months. I go to a restaurant for supper 1 day per. month and I order food people consider unhealthy as I consider this my treat. I eat 100 calories less for the 7 days before so I do not gain weight, if I eat less then 700 calories more, good for me. If I want something that people consider unhealthy like ice cream I can eat 1/2 cup of regular gourmet ice cream from the grocery store at 100 calories or other so called unhealthy foods at 100 calories any day and not go over my calorie limit. I do not do this everyday and get my proper nutrition daily. There are no good or bad foods, it is the amount and how often you eat them that counts. I would rather have 1 piece of good tasting pizza then 2 pieces of healthy bad tasting pizza. This is a way of life for my lifetime, not a diet! I also exercise 10 hours per. week, mostly walking. Report
I quit doing fad diets years ago! The weight returns very quickly plus a few more lbs on top of that Report
Not all fad diets result in failure. Years ago, I went on Nutrisystem for about 6 months and lost about 50 pounds. The diet completely reprogrammed the way I looked at portion size and carbs. After I stopped the program, I had an understanding of the types of foods and portions I should continue eating, and kept the weight off for more than 10 years (until I became pregnant).

Also, I don't think that eliminating certain types of food from your diet is inevitably unsustainable, just depends on the person. I know plenty of vegetarians who would never consider eating meat, and vegans who haven't touched a glass of milk for a decade or more without feeling deprived or being considered "unhealthy." If you love, love, love bread, it would probably be difficult to maintain a zero-grain diet indefinitely, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be done, or that the completion of a low-carb "fad diet" couldn't be adapted into a diet where bread is a rare indulgence instead of a staple. Report
everyone wants to lose weight NOWand anything touts "lose weight fast", well . . . lots of people try it. Thank you for this sensible article to help open our eyes to those fads which will not ultimately help us. Report
Everyone needs to do what is right for them ... but I have spent a kajillion years following "healthy" diets that were not so healthy for me. My doc suggested an elimination protocol that has changed my life forever. Yes it is hard to eat a limited scope of food groups but this allows your body to health and then reintroduce foods slowly to find out what needs to be eliminated ... possibly forever.

Gluten has been a huge issue for me ... without me knowing it. Now that the "fad" is to eat everything whole wheat ... many of us do not tolerate it in such overwhelming quantities.

Food is for body fueling and nourishment. Sometimes we have to figure out which foods that is. Report


About The Author

Kirsten Nunez
Kirsten Nunez
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle writer, editor and author. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition and is currently based in New York. Kirsten spends her days writing articles and dreaming up healthy recipes.