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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.

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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.

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