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Fad Diets Are Dangerous

(Photo above by Thought Catalog via Unsplash)

Fad diets are diets that become popular in the mainstream, sometimes publicized by influencers and bloggers. But often, they have little scientific evidence backing the claims of the diets and can sometimes lead to long-term negative health consequences.

 

Raw Vegan

The raw vegan diet is exactly what it sounds like — all the food you eat must be vegan but with the added condition that everything must also be uncooked. Alternative ways to prepare food include juicing, dehydrating, blending, and soaking. There are some variations of this diet that exist. Food can be warmed or heated below certain temperatures or only eaten raw in the morning, allowing cooked foods for dinner. But the main goal is to eat as much raw vegan food as you can.

This diet relies on consuming lots of fruits and vegetables. Nuts, seeds, and sprouted grains supplement these, but there are limited options when cooking is not allowed. Followers of the diet claim that raw foods are the healthiest, and that cooking strips foods of their nutrients. Raw Blend, an Australian family-owned business that promotes a raw lifestyle, claims that “raw food contains enzymes which aid digestion,” and these enzymes are destroyed when heated above around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The company also states that “eating food without enzymes makes digestion more difficult,” and “the resulting toxicity is considered to be the cause of obesity and chronic disease.”

The reality is almost the opposite. In raw foods, about half of the proteins are indigestible. But when cooked, the proteins are denatured and are much more easily digested by the body. So, while you miss out on many of the nutrients of raw produce, you can optimize intake by cooking it. Additionally, raw foods have higher water content and are less calorie-dense than cooked foods. To eat 2,300 calories in raw food (a healthy daily amount for the average adult), you would need to consume almost 10 pounds of food.

In the Evo Diet Experiment, participants did just that. Nine volunteers ate only raw fruits and vegetables for 12 days to emulate eating habits of pre-fire humans. Eating took up a considerable amount of time and left little room for other activities. Those involved also lost an average of 9.7 pounds despite a normal caloric intake. That’s around a pound per day. The recommended healthy weight loss rate is only up to 2 pounds per week.

Before the advent of fire and cooking, some 200,000 years ago, this kind of diet was sustainable. Human stomachs were larger and more of the body’s resources went to digesting food. Once humans learned to use fire to cook, stomachs evolved to be smaller, teeth shrank in size, and the energy that used to go to digestion was redirected to the brain.

Raw vegans, like Raw Blend, that purport that eating raw is healthier because humans have eaten that way “since the dawn of time,” are wrong. The human stomach as it is now, does not have the capacity to hold the amount of food you need to eat (in Freelee the Banana Girl’s case, 10-15 pears as a meal) nor the resources to digest only non-denatured proteins.

 

Keto

The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, mainly with the goal of losing weight. The aim of the keto diet is to force the body into ketosis. Ketosis is a metabolic state that occurs when the body has very little carbohydrate intake — this also happens during starvation. During ketosis, insulin levels decrease and fatty acids are released from the body’s fat stores (this is your body “burning fat”). These fatty acids are then oxidized into ketones, which act as a replacement for glucose. Glucose is necessary for proper brain function, but during ketosis, it is replaced with ketones. Normally, the body and the brain get glucose from processing dietary carbs.

Some foods not allowed in the keto diet are baked goods, pasta, rice, bread, fruit, beans, potatoes, and alcohol. The diet relies more on foods like fish, meat, eggs, and green and leafy vegetables. Changing your eating habits to follow this diet does help with losing weight quickly. In the first week, people lose between 2 and 10 pounds on average.  While this seems promising, it’s mostly water weight as your body adjusts to the reduction in carbs. After this first week, people lose around 1 or 2 pounds a week, which is the recommended amount on a normal calorie-deficit weight-loss diet.

But these weight-loss benefits come with a cost. Many people switching to the keto diet experience the “keto flu” when transitioning their diet. The keto flu is a host of symptoms that includes foggy brain, headaches, digestion issues, mood changes, and sleeping difficulty. Symptoms usually subside after a week, but some experience them for a month or longer.

Promises of weight loss are enticing,but the long-term effects may not be worth it. Eating this way may put you at risk for certain nutrient deficiencies, increase in LDL cholesterol (this is the “bad” kind of cholesterol), and kidney issues.

It’s also important to note that this diet wasn’t even created with the intention of weight loss. It was originally prescribed to childhood epilepsy patients. Those who had recurring and uncontrollable seizures benefited from going into ketosis. The diet eased their seizures. It has also been used to help Type 2 diabetes patients, as the keto diet decreases insulin resistance. The keto diet was appropriated and popularized by the Atkins program for the weight-loss industry, even though the diet may not be sustainable or suitable for that demographic.

 

Paleo

Similar to the raw vegan diet, the paleo diet is rooted in the belief that eating like early humans is healthier. Instead of the raw vegan diet, which focuses on food eaten in the time before fire, the paleo diet focuses on the Paleolithic era before the advent of farming. Specifically, this is around 10,000 years ago. The diet revolves around food that could be obtained from hunting and gathering, like fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables. It excludes legumes, grains, dairy, potatoes, and refined sugar.

The paleo diet is based on the discordance hypothesis, which posits that human physiological evolution has not caught up to modern diets, and is instead attuned to the way we ate 10,000 years ago. However, there is evidence that some humans began eating grains as long as 30,000 years ago. And, evolution does not ever simply cease. Since the Paleolithic era, there have been observed genetic changes in humans, including an increase in the number of genes that code for the digestion of dietary starches.

There is some promise in paleo’s contribution to weight loss. Multiple controlled scientific studies have shown participants lose weight or increase their weight loss while on the paleo diet (though others have not had the same results). The diet has also been shown to slim waistlines and improve glucose sensitivity in some cases.

But those studies were short-term and still have disadvantages. The paleo diet may be more expensive to maintain, as starches and grains are less expensive than meats. And cutting out certain foods was difficult for many participants to do consistently. Currently, there is little research on the long-term effects of the diet. But, cutting out dairy and grains may lead to fiber, calcium, and vitamin D deficiencies. And eating a lot of red meat and fats can increase LDL cholesterol levels as well as increase the risk of kidney disease, similar to other high-fat diets, like keto.

 

Every other diet ever

Fad diets are designed for short-term, extreme weight loss. In the long-term, they are unsustainable and can have negative health effects. All of them require you to restrict your current diet and cut out certain foods. Labeling things — especially food — as “good” or “bad” can also affect mental health. Registered dietitian Bridget Hastings Komosky notes in an article for Walden Behavioral Care, a center that treats eating disorders, that these categories “can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and low self-worth when the “rules” of a diet are broken.”

No popular diet can be beneficial to everyone or tailored specifically to your needs. The best and safest way to change your eating habits is to tailor it to your habits, health needs, activity level, and preferences — and always with the help of a medical professional.

Diet culture has convinced us that we need to lose weight and that the best way to do so is through rigid dieting. Neither of those things are true. Instead of committing to a dangerous, unsatisfying, and unpleasant diet, focus on what keeps you happy and truly healthy.

  • Question of

    Have you ever tried a fad diet?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question of

    If you have, did you think it worked for you?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question of

    If you have followed a fad diet, did you enjoy it?

    • Yes
    • No

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Written by Abby Sacks

Student at the University of Virginia studying Psychology and Media Studies. When not writing or hanging out with my cat, can be found watching too much bad TV and being too old for TikTok but enjoying it anyway.

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