Eat Right: Fad-Diet Fails, Quick-Fix Lies and the Beauty of Undieting

by Laura Buxenbaum, MPH, RD, LDN

Americans are more confused than ever about what to eat to achieve optimal health. Much of this has to do with questionable information coming from a variety of sources – from the hairdresser to the internet.  While the hype around quick fixes seems alluring, the recommendations might not be based on science and the sources may not be credible.  With resolutions still looming, it’s a good time to review options and take inventory of those top “food fails” in the headlines from a dietitian’s perspective. 

Food fails are short-term approaches that seem promising to lose weight quickly or that sound healthy, but in the end aren’t sustainable.  What’s more, food fails may be harmful to our health. The old adage of “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” is a good gauge for a major fail! 

Let’s start with fad diets. Despite the U.S. weight loss market being a $66 billion dollar industry,  70% of Americans remain overweight.  If a diet offers a quick fix, cuts out a whole food group (such as Paleo or Ketogenic) and is not based on science, it is a fad diet. 

While it may not seem harmful to do a quick-fix fad diet, continually yo-yo dieting slows your metabolism and, according to research, most people gain the weight back, plus more!  Cutting out entire food groups can result in a shortage of essential nutrients, which can cause serious health problems. For example, cutting out dairy foods can result in under consuming vitamin D and calcium, which could lead to osteoporosis. 

Instead, enjoy a variety of foods and adhere to a lifestyle, rather than diet. Think of it as “undieting.”  Try the Mediterranean Diet, which was ranked the top diet by US News & World Report. Think of it as an eating style, not a fad diet. This food approach emphasizes fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and olive oil, as well as nutrient-rich dairy foods like cheese and yogurt. The Mediterranean lifestyle is realistic, and it is easy to find on restaurant menus or cook at home. 

Secondly, don’t fear foods, especially fat.  Too often we assume foods containing fat are too high in calories and need to be replaced with low-fat or fat-free options.  However, when fat is removed from foods, manufacturers often replace it with sugar to improve taste. Fat is important because it is a major source of energy; it helps our bodies absorb certain nutrients and produce hormones. It also helps curb hunger. Maximize meals and snack time by adding foods with staying power like avocados, olive oil, nuts and fatty fish, and full-fat dairy products. 

Dairy foods provide nutrients that are under consumed by most Americans, including calcium, potassium and vitamin D. People may shy away from fat in dairy foods because they are concerned about saturated fat, but recently, exciting research suggests saturated fat consumption is not  linked to poor heart health. Furthermore, observational studies show that dairy food consumption, regardless of fat content, does not increase heart disease risk.  Last, be wary of any eating plan that calls for skipping meals. Intermittent fasting is a popular trend, which involves restricting the hours in which one eats.  Most intermittent fasting schedules recommend not eating until noon.  However, skipping meals can lead to over eating at the next meal and making poor food choices in between. If you have underlying medical conditions, skipping meals can be dangerous. 

As a registered dietitian, I recommend smaller meals with planned snacks, which spread calories throughout the day, rather than during a restricted time frame—and that starts with a protein-rich breakfast.  Many studies link breakfast eating with improved health, including reduced risk of
diabetes, increased mental alertness, better heart health and better weight management.  

While quick weight loss and the promise of increased energy is alluring, remember reducing body weight and keeping it off is hard, so stay grounded with evidence-base science. As you explore new frontiers this year, keep grounded in what is true: small changes that lead to a well-balanced and varied eating plan, regular exercise and a good night’s sleep are often the best prescription for a healthy mind and body.

Laura Buxenbaum, MPH, RD, LDN is the Assistant Director of Food and Nutrition Outreach for The Dairy Alliance. She received her Master of Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill and has been working in dietetics for over 15 years. She can be reached at lbuxenbaum@thedairyalliance.com.