Research, countless studies and tests have proven it over and over again.
Highly restrictive dieting does not work. Dieting is potentially dangerous.
In fact, only 5% of people on a restrictive diet actually keep the weight off. These are near-impossible odds.
Yet somehow the diet and weight loss industry has grown to be valued at $71 billion.
An alarming figure considering that many diets can often do more harm than good; causing physiological and psychological dangers that could lead to eating disorders, organ failure, and potentially heart disease.
It may be tempting to try paleo, fasting, or go full-on carnivore, but the dangers of dieting could outweigh any potential health benefits. Here are just some of the many dangers to look out for should you try fad dieting.
Table of Contents
What is Dieting?
Before the term was exclusively linked to the foods we choose to intake, “diet” had a more holistic meaning. From the ancient Greek diaita, the concept originally meant “a way of life”. Food was just one minor part of overall lifestyle choices made when one made for their diaita.
Currently, dieting refers to the deliberate restriction of food as a way to experience potential health benefits or weight loss.
Unless recommended by a medical professional as part of a personalised health plan, most diets fall under the category of “fad diets”. These are plans which are backed by celebrities and/or respected organisations as an optimal weight-loss solution. More often than not, these diets do not have enough strong, scientific evidence to support their claims (if there’s any at all).
Examples of fad diets include intermittent fasting, ketogenic, The Zone, and juice cleansing.
Characteristics of Fad Dieting
There are hundreds of fad diets, each emphasising a type of lifestyle while glorifying those who may have seen success on the diet.
But are these diets rooted in scientific evidence, or are they simply routines that reflect a lifestyle that we hope to embody one day? Whether you go with the classic Atkins diet or opt for a newer Low-FODMAP routine, there are a few key characteristics that hold true across all diets.
Restrictive Food Rules
All fad diets involved some form of restriction. These routines are highly rigid and will contain at least one of the 3 food rule types listed below.
- “When” Rules: These guidelines tell a dieter when they can and can’t eat during the day. (e.g. no eating prior to 12pm)
- “What” Rules: Determine what can or can’t be consumed on the diet. (e.g. no carbs or no processed foods)
- “How Much” Rules: Limit what can be consumed within a given time period. (e.g. I must stick to 1200 calories per day)
Outside of restrictive food rules, diets will often have one or more of the following characteristics.
- A Quick Fix: Diets are often touted as easy, short-term changes that will not completely upend the participant’s current lifestyle.
- Promise Dramatic Results: These plans will usually promise dramatic, noticeable results, characterised by before & after photos and testimonials.
- Restrict/Eliminate a Food or Food Group: Diets usually make the participant restrict a particular food in order to see these dramatic results.
- Severely Restrict Calories: Outside of eliminating a food group, diets will also severely restrict the number of calories that can be consumed on a given day.
- Forbid or Overly Encourage a Macronutrient: Diets sometimes excessively forbid or overly encourage the consumption of a specific macronutrient, like protein. Although beneficial, macronutrients could in fact do more harm than good when not consumed in moderation. And they offer zero nutritional value if removed entirely.
- Promise Rapid Weight Loss: Some diets will claim that their program will lead to quick, dramatic weight loss. While the claims may be true, it’s quite rare for the effects of rapid weight loss to last longer than a few years (if that).
- Promote Detoxification, Cleansing, or Fasting: Programs may tout their system as cleansing, or detoxifying the body of harmful materials. If a diet uses any of these phrases, steer clear. Our bodies have systems designed over millions of years of evolution to detoxify and remove harmful substances. It does not need any additional help to perform these tasks well.
- Promote Liquid Meal Replacements: Some methods may prioritise liquid meals over solids. Currently, there is no significant evidence supporting replacing meals with liquids, and there may be some risks involved.
- Based on Personal Experience/Little Evidence: Fad diets may develop from a single dramatic personal experience or seemingly breakthrough study. The rules of the diet are derived completely from this single incident, with follow-up research carried out to support or refute the claims.
The Many Dangers of Fad Dieting
Fad Dieting Encourages Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are the most harmful dangers associated with fad dieting. With countless rules and restrictions associated with dieting, it makes perfect sense why severe dieters are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who do not diet.
There are several ways fad dieting encourages eating disorders.
- Extreme Hunger Onset: Dieting encourages food restriction, forcing dieters to test their willpower in extreme circumstances. This constant restriction means participants are more hungry, more often. Over time, this puts dieters at risk of binge eating, making them vulnerable to gorging themselves on all the foods they avoided while dieting.
- An Ongoing Cycle: Hunger is a natural human response and eventually, no amount of willpower can tame it. During these times of extreme hunger, people may find themselves wanting to rebel against all the food rules they are trying to follow. They are also probably avoiding foods that they enjoy (e.g. carbs or sweets), making the diet even more psychologically draining. This results in intense episodes of binging on favourite foods – followed by regret at failing the diet – leading to periods of dieting even more restrictive than the last.
- Consumption Consumes You: This unhealthy lifestyle of excessive consumption followed by excessive restriction has lasting negative side effects. Dieters may become consumed with their own body image, developing a warped ideal of how they look and using that ideal to inform future eating habits. Some may become so consumed with their body image that it informs every decision of their waking life.
Medical & Physiological Dangers
The risks of fad dieting far outweigh the short-term weight loss that might be achieved. Outside of encouraging eating disorders, many fad diets can lead to medical and physiological risks.
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Muscle loss
- Higher risk for heart disease
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Impaired bone health
- Digestive issues
Fad diets not only harm our physical health, but they also negatively affect our mental wellbeing. People who strictly adhere to fad diets may also experience other psychosocial complications, including:
- Depressive and anxiety symptoms
- Low self-esteem
- Reduced sex drive
- Social withdrawal
- Attention difficulties
- Poorer quality of life
- Compulsive exercise
- Poorer interoceptive awareness
- Increased stress levels
- Difficulties concentrating at work or school
This list of dangers is only associated with fad dieting. The effects are exacerbated if someone develops an eating disorder while attempting to diet.
3 Ways to Avoid Dieting Dangers on Your Health Journey
When every influencer you see online is touting a life-changing diet, it can be tempting to try it out yourself. Remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And it may do more harm than good.
Below are a few tips that will help you steer clear of fad diets and their dangers.
Focus on Health Behaviours
Go back to basics and focus on what is proven to work without completely upheaving your current lifestyle. This means:
- Eat good quality foods
- Don’t deprive yourself of your favourite foods
- Engage in a regular activity that you enjoy
- Avoid abusing drugs and alcohol
- Take care of your mental health (e.g. self-care, socialising with friends, a creative outlet)
Get rid of that picture you have in your mind what your waistline will look like after you’ve lost a few pounds. Don’t focus on the end result. Zone in on the process of becoming a person who lives a healthy lifestyle. And don’t forget to enjoy it along the way.
Honour Your Hunger and Satiety Signals
Also known as intuitive eating, research shows that eating according to your biological signals is associated with many positive medical, psychological and social health outcomes. It’s also associated with weight stability (instead of weight regain and instability) and can protect against eating disorders.
In short, when you feel hungry, eat. When you feel full, stop.
Eat Regularly and Consistently
Dieting can alter your metabolism significantly. It’s one of the reasons why many dieters slingshot back to their original weight in a short period after a successful weight loss routine.
Eating regularly throughout the day (3 meals and 2 snacks) is great for improving your overall health and maintaining a healthy metabolism. Regular eating sends signals to your brain and body that food is readily available, causing you to burn more calories and store less fat as energy.
Regular eating also ensures you don’t go too hungry throughout the day and will give you the energy to perform tasks at an optimal level.
And If You Have the Desire to Lose Weight…
No one diet will effectively help you lose more weight and keep it off. The key to maintaining a healthy weight is found through regular exercise and the consumption of a variety of unprocessed/minimally processed foods in moderation.
Dieting and Eating Disorders Go Hand-in-Hand
Still thinking about going on a diet? It’s a slippery slope. The dangers of dieting are strongly correlated with the development of future eating disorders, leaving many in a never-ending cycle of binge eating and extreme restriction.
There’s a better way than dieting. Subscribe today and get a free copy of my eBook, the ‘5 Proven Steps To Breaking The Binge Eating Cycle’ + monthly tips to support you on your journey to healthier eating.