Clean reading: how to spot a fad diet

By Eliza Keck

19 September 2018

4 minute read

How many times a week do you see a flat lay photo of food in your Instagram feed along with a comment about some fad diet that claims to be the miracle cure? Never? Lucky you! For your edification, they usually look like this:

Since the advent of social media, it’s become the new norm to share food photos with the world. Our obsession with documenting our pre-masticated pears and meticulously marinated meat may inspire some to get creative in the kitchen but unfortunately, it’s also leading others down a destructive path. Orthorexia is a dangerous eating disorder that has risen in prominence over recent years after being dubbed the “clean eating disorder”. In short, it is an obsession with eating foods that the person considers healthy. Often, the sufferer will omit entire food groups or fixate on, and over-consume, specific foods to such an unhealthy extent it impacts their social life and their health in general.

For the lucky ones who aren’t suffering from this awful disorder, surely our culture’s obsession with ‘clean’ eating is improving our diets overall, right? Unfortunately not. The number of Australians who are overweight or obese has been steadily increasing over the past 30 years. A few years ago we interviewed 40,000 people from all over Australia and our overall results were poor. Aussies aren’t eating enough fruit and veggies and even choose the wrong types of protein. It all comes down to too much junk food and not enough of the good stuff.

Considering we’re constantly bombarded with mixed messages about food from ‘credible’ sources it’s easy to see how someone can end up suffering from an awful disorder, or follow a false food doctrine, leading them to poorer food choices.

How to spot a fad diet

When it comes to diets, if you struggle to sort the fab from the fad, we’re here to help! Here are four common fad diet warning signs you should look out for:

  1. The diet recommends you cut out entire food groups. There are so many variations of this kind of fad diet. While there is certainly lots of well-founded scientific evidence supporting the reduction of certain food groups (like our low-carb diet), a responsible diet should not advocate cutting a food group out entirely. If you have an allergy, special health condition or want to cut out a food group for ethical reasons, you should always discuss your dietary change with a certified health professional first. They’ll be able to help you work out replacement foods that will ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need to keep healthy.
  2. It focuses exclusively on certain food and/or food groups. The lemon detox, the grapefruit diet, the cookie diet – if the diet tells you to only eat one or two foods, it’s a fad and you’d do best to ignore as it is unlikely to provide you with all the necessary essential nutrients.
  3. It promises quick, dramatic and unrealistic results. Sorry guys, there’s no such thing as a diet pill that makes you drop 10 kilos overnight. Many detox diets also fit into this category. Just remember, while smashing down litres of lemon juice for a weekend could certainly help you drop a kilo or two, it’s likely the weight loss won’t last and, more importantly, it won’t be healthy weight loss, exposing you to long-term health problems.
  4. Lacks credible scientific evidence. This final point is a tough one because unless you’re a scientist or health professional, it’s really hard to know how to understand a scientific paper to validate a diet’s claims. All good and effective dietary strategies should be grounded in scientific evidence. Many fad diets contain half-truths, making it difficult to sort science from science-fiction. A ‘quick and dirty’ test that will usually separate the dietary wheat from the chaff is how extreme the diet is. More often than not, a diet that requires you to make extreme changes and to eliminate whole food groups will have stretched the truth beyond reasonable limits. If you’re not sure, the smartest solution is to discuss the diet with a healthcare professional as they’ll be across the most up-to-date research and will be able to assist you to identify the most appropriate dietary solution for your individual needs.

From fad to fab

One thing many fad diets have in common is a simple, clear mantra; “Only eat one food”, “Follow this simple rule”, “Quit this kind of food.” Eating is such a huge part of our lives and habits are extremely hard to break – we get it, a simple message is much easier to follow. Unfortunately, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ diet for all individuals. That’s where a health professional comes in. They can help tailor one of the many legitimate, evidence-based diets to suit your culture, religion, economic situation and health and metabolic goals. We’re sorry, it probably isn’t the answer you were hoping for but it’s the best answer you’ll get.

“Please CSIRO, give me just one healthy eating tip!”

If we must. One simple step you can take towards a healthier diet: reduce your intake of energy dense, nutrient poor, processed foods. When you’re hungry, instead of reaching for a processed snack, reach for some whole, fresh foods. They’re rich in nutrients (such as vitamins and minerals) and lower in energy. This is the best way to get overall health benefits, not just weight loss.

Want to diet but not sure who to trust?