The scientific process can often seem contradictory to outside observers. One study will seem to debunk another in remarkably short order. In an era of internet news that relies on punchy headlines and nearly instantaneous reporting of research, this effect is intensified. It’s one of many factors responsible for the growing unwillingness to accept scientific conclusions in areas like climate change and vaccination that call for a sort of social consensus to take collective action. But it also contributes to one harmful trend on an individual level: the tendency to embrace fad diets over time-tested scientific conclusions on personal nutrition.
The past couple decades, which also saw with the rising primacy of the internet in our lives, has also been the golden age of fad diets. While some of these diets may offer a degree of valuable nutrition in certain areas, by and large they attempt to provide shortcuts around scientifically proven diet and exercise strategies. They also tend to focus on short-term weight loss over long term health.
The Problems with Fad Diets
According to one Huffington Post article by eating disorder therapist Jennifer Rollin, with input from registered dietician Haley Goodrich, many of the most popular diet plans have the potential to do more harm than good. Yet, their booming popularity often eclipses nutritional advice supported over time by research.
Whole 30 is one trendy diet that has gone viral on social media, booming in popularity since it first emerged in 2009. It’s a 30 day plan that involves eliminating foods that are considered potentially problematic, including dairy, sugar, legumes, and grains. The plan involves totally cutting out these components before gradually reintroducing them.
According to Rollin and Goodrich, it promotes the elimination of food groups that are part of a healthy diet. Elimination diets like Whole 30 can give rise to GI issues, nutritional deficiencies, and long-term eating disorders. With no reliable research supporting the plan, much of the advice is arbitrary and fails to account for the fact that some foods are great in moderate doses, but terrible for you in excess.
The Ketogenic Diet, while boasting some long-term credibility from science and research, is similarly problematic when used as a weight-loss shortcut. It is a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet that attempts to trigger ketosis, a metabolic process that causes the body to use its fat for energy instead of sugar.
While research on “Keto” does exist, there is very little that examines long-term health impacts. The most substantial research actually was focused on the diet as a way to treat pediatric seizure disorders. While it has been effective for this purpose, those same studies found side effects like high cholesterol and triglycerides, and increased risk for heart disease and stroke. Goodrich explains that ketosis is a actually an “unhealthy metabolic state” that can even be life threatening, noting that carbs are in fact the body’s preferred form of fuel, and that restricting them can trigger cravings for higher quantities of other food – leading dieters to gain weight back.
The Paleo Diet aims to simulate the paleolithic eating habits of humans, with a focus on whole foods like fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. Another set of nutritionists and dieticians told Huffington Post that the Paleo diet has some upsides, but some serious pitfalls as well.
Additional veggies, fruits and other whole foods are great for you. But heavy meat consumption has been linked by some researchers to increased risk for heart disease and cancer (in the case of red meat.) Plus, Paleo diets encourage the elimination of highly beneficial food groups, like grain, dairy, and legumes.
The Scientific Reality
These are just a few examples of the pitfalls of some fad diets. Dieting is a 60 billion-dollar industry, designed to play on people’s insecurities and offer supposed shortcuts that are relatively easy to understand. Generally speaking, promoters of fad diets are better at public relations than the average researcher.
Science, on the other hand, is famously ineffective at communicating with the public. Seemingly contradictory studies can confuse people, obscuring the broader consensus on healthy eating. As with an issue like climate change, the public often mistakenly focuses on the latest news instead of the long-standing consensus. The scientific process inherently involves the proposal of new conclusions that are then tested over time, ultimately either forming a consensus or being disproven and discarded. So while doctors have gradually changed their tune on something like eggs, for example, it took many studies over time to form a whole new understanding of the effects of dietary cholesterol.
Meanwhile, the big picture of scientific research confirms again and again that a varied diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins is best, with careful moderation when it comes to things like sugar, salt, and saturated fat. Natural foods lead to feeling full faster, with less likelihood of eating too many calories. Most Americans also consume too much processed food with particularly harmful components like trans fats.
If it helps to put a name to it, the thoroughly researched Mediterranean Diet, focused on natural, mostly plant based foods, as well as grains, fish, legumes, and low-fat dairy, is consistently ranked by researchers as a great diet. As is the DASH diet, recommended by doctors to lower blood pressure, and emphasizing minimal amounts of sodium and saturated fat in favor of whole grains and vegetables.
These habits may not lead to losing the most weight in the shortest period of time possible, but paired with an active lifestyle, they will ensure long-term health and sustainable weight loss and maintenance. When it comes to health and nutrition, these shortcuts seem to be more trouble then they’re worth.