Atkins. Alkaline. South Beach. Cabbage Soup. Carnivore. (?!) There are so many diets masquerading as a panacea for weight loss—a magic potion that will help you shed those pesky pounds.
There's just one problem: According to science, super-restrictive fad diets are not a long term solution for weight loss. Studies, both past and present, have shown time and time again that the weight loss from these plans is temporary at best.
For example, in 2007, researchers from UCLA conducted a comprehensive analysis of 31 long-term diet studies. According to Traci Mann—Associate Professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of the study—the results painted a "bleak picture" of the effectiveness of fad diets.
"You can lose five to ten percent of your weight on any number of diets," Mann writes in the study. "But then the weight comes back. We found that the majority of people regained all the weight, plus more. Sustained weight loss was found only in a small minority of participants."
A team of Harvard-affiliated researchers came to a similar conclusion in 2015. Their study looked at whether low-fat diets (in which 30 percent or fewer calories came from fat) worked better than those that are higher in fat (including low-carb options, such as Atkins). The conclusion was that all these diets seemed to be equally ineffective.
According to their research, the average weight loss from fad diets was around seven pounds—an amount deemed insignificant by researchers. What's more, they noted that most people regained the lost weight after only a year.
Effectiveness aside, super-restrictive dieting can bring a host of harmful side effects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, crash diets have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Fad diets can also have an alarming psychological impact. Research indicates dieters are prone to elevated cortisol (i.e., the stress hormone); another study found that dieting increased stress, which in turn triggered binge eating.
It makes sense, too: When you're on a super-restrictive diet, you're essentially demonizing food. Suddenly, the fuel that feeds your life becomes a source of undue stress.
Oftentimes, dieters set themselves up for failure by picking a plan that’s overly restrictive—and, therefore, impossible to maintain.
“Most of the data indicates that the specific diet you use to achieve weight loss isn’t that important,” says Dr. Benjamin Burton, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine here at ZOOM+Care. “Most diets have very similar success rates. The most important variable is your ability to stick with the diet plan you have chosen. So make it something you enjoy.”
Rather than buying into the fad diet hype, look beyond restricting macronutrients, such as fat, protein, or carbohydrates. Instead, try incorporating healthy foods into your diet in a way you like (and can actually maintain).
Instead of focusing on what you need to cut out of your diet, ask yourself, "what healthy foods can I add to my meals today?" Choose whole, unprocessed foods that you actually enjoy eating. Challenge yourself to add lots of veggies to your morning scrambled eggs, or eat a handful of antioxidant-packed berries with your oatmeal.
You can also try substituting one pleasurable thing for another. Love eating something crunchy with your afternoon sandwich? Sub potato chips for carrots. Are you a fan of sodas and flavored lattes? Substitute syrupy beverages with something healthier, such as tea sweetened with Stevia.
“Another new idea in weight loss is a weight maintaining diet,” says Dr. Burton. “Many people achieve some success with a weight loss diet, but eventually find it harder and harder to stick with it. If your eating plan is causing diet fatigue, consider transitioning to a weight maintaining diet for a short time—something that still helps control food intake, but perhaps isn’t as restrictive. Continue with the weight maintaining diet until you are ready to dive in again full force to the weight loss plan.”
Research shows that exercise and nutrition improve health—regardless of whether they lead to a dramatic change in weight. That means eating nutritionally-balanced food has inherent value. So does exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and managing your stress. This year, why not embrace new habits that are good for whole-body health, and let trendy diets take a back seat? Your body will thank you.