Downside of diet trends: if a weight-loss scheme sounds too good to be true, it is

What do blogs, the Atkins diet, and Napoleon Dynamite have in common? They’re all seemingly harmless fads. But one of them can lead to serious health consequences.

“We have a real fascination with quick-fix approaches to weight loss,” says Bonnie Jortberg, a dietitian at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. “Fad diets make huge promises–take some pill or potion or eat some strange combination of foods and the weight melts off. But they don’t work in the long term.”

Behind the Fad

dietThe diet industry takes in $40 billion each year, according to U.S. News & World Report, and some of that money comes from fad diets. What makes them different from healthful eating? Trendy diets ignore a basic nutritional premise: To lose weight, a person must take in fewer calories than he or she uses.

Fad diets promise quick results with minimal effort, and most rely on fluid loss to produce rapid weight loss. When the dieter resumes former eating habits, the body rehydrates and the weight returns. Dieters believe that the plan worked and think the weight returned because they went off the diet. So they keep going back.

Fad diets also rely on the sheer desperation of people who believe they’ve “tried everything” to lose weight. Those people can easily fall prey to claims of “miracle” weight loss plans. This is especially true of teens, who typically struggle with body-image issues and who may think they’re overweight even if they are not.

Dieter, Beware

Not all fad diets are easy to spot. The National Institutes of Health recommends looking out for these red flags:

  • 1. Is there an overemphasis on a specific food group or groups?
  • 2. Are food choices limited?
  • 3. Does the plan claim calories don’t count?
  • 4. Does the plan require the user to purchase specific products?
  • 5. Does it sound too good to be true?

Fad diets are generally unhealthful not only because they lack vitamins and minerals, essential fats, and healthful carbohydrates but also because they can cause serious damage. When the body is forced to function on a drastically imbalanced diet, it begins to metabolize muscle rather than food or stored fat. This leads to muscle breakdown, nausea, dehydration, and headaches, not to mention general irritability.

Healthful Alternatives


Former fad dieter Courtney Challies puts it best: Fad diets get your hopes up and are worse for you emotionally than being heavy is. She lost 50 pounds last summer by attending a New York weight-loss program for teens, Camp Shane; many teens successfully practice lifestyle changes taught at reputable weight-loss camps. “Fad diets … never worked, and they never will,” says Nancy Lenhart, founder of Camp La Jolla in California. Other proven programs, such as Weight Watchers, are available to teens with parents’ permission and a doctor’s recommendation. Anyone who wants to lose weight should discuss options with his or her doctor first to determine a healthful plan.

The chart below details the pitfalls of three diets popular with teens. Read the facts behind the plans, and get the lowdown from teens who learned about fad dieting the hard way.


* What is a fad diet? (one that promises quick results with minimal effort, usually through rapid fluid loss)

* How are the diets in the chart examples of fad diets? (Instead of teaching dieters to permanently alter eating habits in a healthful way, they rely on gimmicks.)

* What makes teenagers susceptible to fad diets? (Teens typically struggle with body-image issues and may, think they are overweight when they’re not.)

* What do you think is the best way to pursue weight loss? (Answers will vary.)


Ask students to critically evaluate a diet they see described in a magazine or a book. Factors to consider include how much weight loss is promised (anything more than 2 to 3 pounds per week is considered unsafe), how the diet works, which foods are included/excluded and what their nutritional value is, what claims are made about the diet’s superiority, and whether the diet includes a maintenance phase.


At, students can get a tailored version of the U.S. government’s nutritional guidelines.

The Diet for Teenagers Only, by Carrie Wiatt and Barbara Schroeder (Regan Books, 2005), is a teen-friendly guide to eating healthfully, avoiding pitfalls, and feeling good.

Sometimes a fad diet leads to something worse; Something Fishy is a supportive online community for people struggling with eating disorders:

Atkins Diet

Plan The program allows unlimited protein basics and severely limits carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, and fruit.

Pros: The diet is relatively easy to follow  and doesn’t require the purchase of any special products.


* Dieter has increased risk of heart disease due to too much fat and cholesterol intake.

* The lack of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can lead to constipation due to lack of dietary fiber.

* High-protein, low-carbohydrate diets may make a dieter feel tired, weak, and nauseous. (1)

Teens “I lost 5 pounds but gained it back who in a week. … I was really tired, tried and I felt deprived:” it –Judy, 15, Easton, Conn. say:

Beverly Hills Diet

Plan The plan begins with a 35-day program basics in which specific items are eaten at each meal. In the first 10 days, only fruit is permitted; on day 11, carbohy-drates are added; on day 19, protein is added.

Pros: Users report rapid initial weight loss.


* Essential nutrients are lost in the first half of the program.

* The plan encourages consuming a single food for an entire day.

* The unrealistic eating plan leaves dieters craving “forbidden” foods.

Teens “I choked down papaya and had horrible who stomach pains during prune day. Finally, tried I gave up because I was bored eating it the same thing, and I was really tired.” say:
–Scott, 17, Daly City, Calif.

Slim-Fast Diet

Plan The program includes two meal-basics replacement shakes, three snacks, and one “sensible” meal each day.

Pros: The program encourages an intake of 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day, daily exercise of 30 to 60 minutes, and healthful lifestyle changes.


* The average shake is between 170 and 280 calories and has between 7 and 20 grams of protein, far less than a typical meal.
That can lead to binge eating or snacking shortly after drinking a shake. (2)

* Slim-Fast products must be purchased.

Teens “I was always hungry, and my energy who was at the low end of the scale tried because I wasn’t getting enough
it protein.”
say: say: –Lyss, 17, Wheeling, Ill.

(1.) National Institutes of Health (2.) American Dietetic Association