On the Grapefruit Diet, Atkins, Paleo, the Zone, Five Factor, and Cabbage Soup: Reflections on Fad Diets and the Meaning of “Success”


When we track our blog stats, Sam and I always get a kick out of seeing that our post on raspberry ketones, pure green coffee bean extract, and garcina cambogia is among the most popular.  It’s not popular because everyone wants to read about why the appeal to authority is a fallacy. It’s not popular because it essentially dismisses these things, claiming that you should keep your money and focus on a healthy approach to eating real food.

No. It’s popular because “raspberry ketones,” “pure green coffee bean extract,” and “garcinia cambogia” are popular search terms for people looking for the next weight loss miracle. They are among the latest fads.
“Fad diet” is a derogatory way of referring to any trendy weight loss plan. I’ve yet to hear it used in a positive way.  When I was a teenager and in my twenties, popular fad diets included the banana diet, the grapefruit diet, the cabbage soup diet, the Scarsdale Diet.

The grapefruit diet is pretty representative of how these things go, so I’ll use it as an example.  You eat half a grapefruit at each meal. With it, at breakfast you have two eggs and some bacon, at lunch you have meat and salad, at dinner you have meat and a vegetable (from an approved list), and then you drink a glass of tomato juice or skim milk at bed time.

The “key” ingredient, be it cabbage soup, bananas, grapefruit, acai berries, a miracle juice or a special smoothie, is really just a diversion.  The reason people lose weight rapidly on these diets is that they involve severe calorie restriction and usually cut out most simple and complex carbohydrates (except a few vegetables and one or two types of fruit). They also include very few snacks, usually restricting eating to three bland meals a day.

Fad diets like this don’t even pretend to be long term.  They are almost always for a stated period of time, ranging from 3 days to 3 weeks.

Other kinds of fad diets, such as the Zone, Atkins, the Blood Type Diet, the Paleo Diet, or the South Beach Diet purport to be longer term and most include advice for eating their way forever.  But they also include long lists of forbidden foods, such as carbohydrates other than certain approved vegetables. I don’t care what anyone says, our bodies need carbs to function efficiently.

Again, the complicated food plans are, in my view, just a diversion.  If we eat a lot of junk food we will maintain a higher weight than many of us wish to maintain.  These plans usually cut out chips and fried foods, cakes and pies, cookies and candy bars. Cutting those things out will of course allow someone to maintain a lower weight than they might if they ate these things all the time.

The diets also often restrict juice.

I was at a talk the other day by Harley Pasternak, personal trainer for many Hollywood celebrities and author of “The Five Factor Diet.”  Other that his approved smoothies (because apparently we ingest more nutritional ingredients when our food is blended than when we chew it ourselves), his diet requires that all drinks be calorie free. He spoke of fresh squeezed OJ as if it was the devil (note that a cup and a half does contain an alarming 450 calories—this might be good information to have but doesn’t automatically mean you ought never drink fresh squeezed orange juice again).

An interesting thing that Harley Pasternak said was this. Though he believes, and all the research points to the fact that, slow, steady weight loss of about half a pound a week is the most effective for long term good results, no one is interested in that kind of weight loss. A book that offered that would not sell.  These days, we want fast results, a la Tim Ferriss and the 4-Hour Body. Without fast results in the first week or two, people will not stick to a plan.

That goes a long way to explaining the appeal of fad diets that are for a limited time only. They get the weight off quickly.  So those who go on them feel successful. That keeps them focused, at least for the period of the diet.  And knowing that it is time-limited makes it bearable.

But as I’ve said many times before, short term results aren’t all that interesting.  They’re uninteresting because they are fleeting at best.  The weight comes back and in 98% of the cases, people end up heavier than they were before they went on the diet.

This is in part because they have damaged their metabolism. The body responds to severely restricted eating by slowing down the metabolism to cope with the lower food intake and use it more efficiently. Most of us do not ease ourselves off of fad diets, but rebound with a major binge on all that we were deprived of while eating half grapefruits and meat and salad.

The need for quick results is what sabotages our efforts from the get go.  If slow but steady is what works, then why are we so resistant to slow progress?  Maybe we need new measures of success. Much of what Sam and I are trying to do in our lives, and are trying to champion in the blog, is to revise our visions of success.  Sam has a great post that explains why body weight and even BMI have been shown to be poor measures of fitness and health. I’m with her when she advocates for athletic over aesthetic values.  It’s not all about looking a certain way, as we can see when we look at the reality of fitness figure competitors.

These days, I have a more diverse sense of goals.  I do not have weight loss goals at all anymore.  I am happy with what my body can do and I enjoy fueling it according to the guidelines of the intuitive eating approach.  A great measure of success for me is to maintain a non-obsessive relationship with food, eat what I want when I need it and in the amounts that keep me satisfied, and above all to enjoy eating.  It’s a wonderful part of life.

I also have performance goals for distance and speed in swimming and running, and for weight and reps in my resistance training, and for gaining strength, confidence, and balance in my yoga practice.

Besides those goals, I have simple “practice” goals each week.  These are just about showing up to do what I said I would do and what I feel I need to do to train well.  For me, this means running 3 times a week, going swimming 2 times a week, resistance training every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and going to yoga 3-4 times per week.  If I can stay on task with these commitments, I feel pretty successful.

I feel fairly confident that following through on doing what is necessary to meet these goals will automatically change the ratio of lean mass to fat in my body composition. I do not preoccupy myself with this as a goal, but I do look on it with interest, for the purposes of our “fittest by fifty” adventure.  To that end, I have scheduled another bod pod visit for next month.

Finally, I’ve got an overall goal that supports my sense of well-being, and that is to have a pretty relaxed attitude about it all. I’m not a drill sergeant anymore. If I miss a workout or eat less mindfully than I rather would, it’s not the end of the world and I don’t spend a single second in remorse.  Onward!

Fad diets fuel an all-or-nothing mentality.  You’re on it or you’re not.  They set us up to fail even if we are successful on the diet itself. Why? Because the pounds will return. They do not promote good health, strong muscles, or sustainable habits. They do not promote moderation, but rather, extremism.  I’m not alone in my views about fad diets. Go Kaleo has a whole blog with the tagline: Are you as tired of fad diets as I am?

I liked Sam’s post about moderation yesterday because I’m a big fan of it myself. I’m also a big fan of slow and steady progress that takes me in a consistent direction. And I’m an advocate of doing less instead of more. And I really don’t like wasting my time with things that set me up for failure, demoralize me, and make me feel badly about myself.  Fad diets have done all of these things to me, lots of my friends, and millions of people I don’t know.

Let’s revise our view of success in ways that support our well-being.

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