Menus Subscribe Search

Fad Diets: A Losing Battle

• October 12, 2010 • 12:00 PM

Fad dieting failures reveal Americans attitudes toward food and themselves.

You arrive to work late after skipping breakfast (you’re trying to cut calories). During your lunch hour, you grab a double cheeseburger from the drive-thru on your way to run a few errands. You leave work around 5, and you order takeout for dinner, then eat it (and some ice cream) while sitting on your living room sofa. Like millions of other Americans flipping through evening programming, you see several commercials on TV that sell products promising quick and easy weight loss. Your love of cookies inspires you to pledge loyalty to a almost-too-good-to-be-true diet mandating the eating of cookies and not much else. Desiring a physique similar to the tanned and attractive people on-screen, you pick up the phone and sign up for “The Cookie Diet.”

With nearly two-thirds of the American population overweight and one-third of this population obese, people are desperate to lose weight. Americans are bombarded with news stories about how obesity is linked to a slew of other health problems.

The result is the continual popularity of the quick-fix diet. The journal Obesity Research (which itself slimmed its name to Obesity) reported in 2005 that 46 percent of women and 30 percent of men go on a diet each year. Eric Oliver, associate professor in political science at the University of Chicago, reports that American values consider being overweight a sign of laziness and being thin a mark of higher social status. He argues that millions of Americans are putting their health at risk with fad diets, dangerous drugs, or extreme surgeries like gastric-bypass.

It’s not news that fad diets are unsuccessful over the long term. Time and time again, studies show that people who yo-yo diet are more likely to gain more weight after their diet is over than if they didn’t diet at all. Fad diets, repetitive dieting, and new food products are promoted in the quick-fix culture, and basic physiological responses like recognizing hunger and satisfaction are left out. Food writer Michael Pollan, in a New York Times Magazine article headlined “Our National Eating Disorder,” commented that, “Food marketing in particular thrives on dietary instability and so tends to heighten it.”

As Atkins Diet-inspired the surge to abandon carb-rich foods and then the subsequent backlash demonstrate so well, when a study makes a claim about a certain food group’s toxic qualities or touts a specific food as the solution to everyone’s weight problems (the cabbage soup diet), there’s a scramble to buy all of the foods endorsed by the diet’s creator. With trends like the low-carb craze of the 1970s, the low-fat diet of the 1980s, the Weight Watchers and Slim Fast popularity of the 1990s, the Cookie Diet, Quick Trim (endorsed by the infamous Kardashian sisters), and the Master Cleanse today, Americans’ diet preference changes with the decade.

No matter how nutritionally well-informed the diet in question may be, there will almost always be an immediate payoff: Restricting calorie intake by eliminating commonly eaten foods will undoubtedly cause weight to drop. But once the dieter (almost inevitably) succumbs to the temptation of the bread basket or the ice cream in the freezer, they are more likely to give up on their diet altogether than accept the setback and go back to following the rules. (Plus, new research suggests self-control itself is by no means limitless.)

Judith Beck, clinical associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, commented that unless people change their attitude, they revert to old habits. Their thought is “I’ve cheated; I might as well eat whatever I want today and start again tomorrow.”

People can completely avoid worrying about cheating on fad diets if they understand in the first place that most are unhealthy and unsustainable, and don’t even bear starting. According to David L. Katz, a member of the ACPM Board of Regents and director of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine, “[the Atkins Diet] achieves its results by restricting calories, as do all fad diets. People can attain rapid weight loss and lower cholesterol by eliminating any entire food category from their diets, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them. Serious illness such as AIDS and cancer tend to cause weight and cholesterol to plummet, but clearly these are not desirable for health.”

Why do people continually subscribe to a quick-fix solution? Americans seem impatient, wanting to overturn years, perhaps decades, of bad habits, in the matter of weeks with the most minimal work possible. We act vain, judging from the commercials for quick fixes. Sluggish, pale and overweight people are transformed to tan, radiant beauties with members of the opposite sex flocking to them. As a whole, we obsess over the number on the scale and self-deprecate when that number is higher than what’s considered the ideal.

“Most individuals want cutting-edge solutions for weight loss, and fad diets offer, at least on the surface, ‘new’ ways to beat the boring mathematical reality of long-term weight loss,” noted Robin Steagall, nutrition communications manager for the Calorie Control Council.

But these diets are a distraction from the real health issues plaguing Americans today. The truth about health, however painful to accept, is that a well-balanced diet, filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein is the key to maintaining a healthy weight, promoting heart health and deflecting cancer and diabetes. Exercise is also a key component to health. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Still, taking the time to shop for fruits and vegetables and plan out meals takes time and effort, and very few people take pleasure in going to the gym. Trying out a neatly outlined fad diet is much easier than overhauling a sedentary way of life.

In opposition to the Western lifestyle is the Slow Food movement, which began in 1987 as a reaction to the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome. The movement promotes regional cuisine. It is a cousin of  the “Slow Money” movement Miller-McCune profiled last year in that it resists the globalization of food while simultaneously encouraging people to do something they don’t often do: think about what they’re eating. And if people thought about what they were eating beyond which McDonald’s meal number they were ordering, it is likely that more people would resist calorie-dense food lacking in nutrients. Taking pleasure in preparing and eating food translates to eating more home-cooked meals and fewer burgers eaten in the car on the go.

Education is key to overturning Americans’ obsession with quick-fix diets. First, adults can educate themselves on nutrition, including learning how to cook simple and nutritious meals. Many websites, magazines and organizations dedicate themselves to health and nutrition; the information is more accessible than ever before. A Google search of “health advice” yielded more than 300 million results. By making their health and well-being a priority, parents can teach children how to have a healthy relationship with food. Schools can play a role in health education. Fueling children’s minds and bodies during school hours should be a priority as the next generation begins to make their own meal choices.

The Eat-Real-Foods-In-Healthy-Portions-and-Exercise-30-Minutes-a-Day-Diet may not have the same ring to it as the Cookie Diet, but it definitely has better — and longer-lasting — results.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Taylor Orr
Taylor Orr currently works in marketing and public relations for a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organization. She earned a bachelor's in global studies with minors in professional editing and French from UCSB, and graduated in 2009. During her undergraduate career, she worked for environmental coalitions on campus and wrote for the Montecito Journal and Santa Barbara Fitness Magazine.

More From Taylor Orr

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.