Fork the Fads: A Scientific Reality Check

By Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN

Brace yourselves for the holidays and the impending tsunami of "New Year, New You" hype. And, before jumping on the bandwagon of B.S. fad diets, let’s reality check. According to Forbes Health, "While many diet programs can be followed in a healthy way, fad diets, which are often marketed as a 'quick fix' for weight loss, are typically backed by little scientific evidence supporting their efficacy and safety."

Let’s dive deeper. "Analysis of Current Literature" was my favorite  graduate school course. Eager students were tasked with selecting a trendy fad diet book, and unveiling the elusive scientific evidence that supported the bold proclamations of the authors. The Zone, The South Beach Diet, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, and The Blood Type Diet were among the chosen at that time. Picture teams of scholarly detectives, armed with skepticism and academic rigor, meticulously dissecting each page. The conclusion and consensus of each was? There was not enough science to back most of the claims the authors were making. 

Being an educated consumer with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when your health and wellness is at stake, is top priority. Here are three current diet trends that continue to monopolize headlines, and what you need to know about each one :keto, intermittent fasting, and juice cleanses (cause they never seem to go away). Spoiler alert: there is no quick fix for weight loss, something the next trendy diet influencer wants you to believe. As a side note, we know Ozempic is hot right now (and we will “weigh-in” in 2024), but that’s medical intervention not dietary!

Being an educated consumer with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when your health and wellness is at stake, is top priority. 

The Keto Diet

Keto, short for the ketogenic diet, is one of the most talked-about fad diets. It emphasizes high fat, moderate protein, and low carbohydrate intake to induce a state of ketosis, where the body burns fat for fuel (versus carbohydrate for fuel). 

In the 1920s, Dr. Russell Wilder at the Mayo Clinic developed this diet as a therapeutic treatment for epilepsy by mimicking fasting's biochemical changes. It gained medical popularity from the 1930s-40s, particularly in children, but declined with the advent of antiepileptic drugs. The 1990s saw a keto diet resurgence, not just for epilepsy, but also for weight loss thanks to Dr. Robert Atkins who popularized high-fat, high-protein, low-carb diets. Since the early 2000s, interest persists for epilepsy, weight loss, and various health conditions, including neurodegenerative diseases and metabolic disorders. However, long-term effects remain uncertain.

What The Fork Weigh In

Keto is not intended as a quick fix for weight loss and should not be used for that purpose, especially given scientific consensus that it may have adverse effects on cardiovascular risk factors, such as increased LDL cholesterol levels, as well as increased total cholesterol and liver enzymes. While it can be effective when used for specific therapeutic interventions, ketosis (and other) biomarkers must be regularly monitored; It requires very careful management, which should be in the hands of adequately skilled medical doctors and/or dietician nutritionists, not pseudo health experts and influencers. 

There is no quick fix for weight loss, something the next trendy diet influencer wants you to believe. 

Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting is rooted in centuries of diverse historical and cultural practices. It  encompasses precise meal timing schedules that alternate between voluntary fasting and non-fasting during a specific period. Approaches to intermittent fasting include alternate-day fasting, periodic fasting, and daily time-restricted eating. Dr. Michael Mosely’s 5:2 diet and Dr. Valter Longo’s research have contributed to the modern conversation, common among those seeking to manage weight, as well as those looking to address chronic conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, high cholesterol, or arthritis. Its rise to trend status can be attributed to several influencers and public figures who have promoted this way of eating as part of their lifestyle and wellness routines. 

The Journal for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics highlights that taking breaks from eating, like overnight fasting, can lower levels of certain markers related to chronic diseases in our bodies, such as insulin and glucose. When you get a blood test, you are often required to fast for 8 to 12 hours to get accurate results for various metabolic measures. The big question for both doctors and scientists is whether regularly incorporating intermittent fasting into our routines could be a practical and lasting way to improve our overall metabolic health on a larger scale. While research suggests that fasting can have cardiometabolic health benefits, the evidence in human studies is weak. 

What The Fork Weigh In

In terms of shedding pounds, changing biology, decreasing appetite, or keeping you on the wagon, Harvard's The Nutrition Source suggests that intermittent fasting is not necessarily superior to other weight loss methods. Also, it must be avoided by those: with anorexia or bulimia nervosa; who regularly take medications that require food intake; who are actively growing (hello, adolescents); who are pregnant and/or breastfeeding. Before joining in the fasting furor, hit up a healthcare pro like a qualified dietitian nutritionist to make sure it’s the right choice for you. 

Choose Food Lifestyle Change Over Fad Diet Fanaticism

Juice Cleansing

Juice cleansing, commonly known as juice detoxification, refers to a short-term dietary regimen where you primarily consume freshly extracted fruit and vegetable juices while abstaining from solid food. While it is believed that this approach helps eliminate toxins from the body and promotes various health benefits, scientific support is limited, if not virtually non-existent. 

Like intermittent fasting, juice cleansing can be traced back to ancient cultures that incorporated fasting and liquid diets for various health and spiritual reasons. However, the modern concept of juice cleansing gained popularity thanks to early proponents of raw foods and natural healing, Dr. Norman Walker, the Father of Juicing, and Ann Wigmore.

Interestingly, according to Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, while juice cleanses are hailed as the superhero of detox and weight loss, the science just isn’t there. Plus short-term and long-term negative health effects of this dietary approach have been documented including headaches, fainting, weakness, fatigue, and irritability, not to mention nutrient deficiency and  oxalate nephropathy (an acute and/or chronic decrease in kidney function associated with the deposition of calcium oxalate crystals, in kidney tubules).

What The Fork Weigh In

When fruit and vegetables are juiced, the fiber is left behind. Therefore, your tall glass of vibrance is mostly sugar with some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The lack of fiber can mess with your digestion. Plus, any weight lost during a juice cleanse is often water weight and muscle mass, which tends to be regained once normal eating patterns resume. 

If you are hell bent on a short-term liquid detox, blend your whole fruits and vegetables in a trusty Vitamix for maximum nutrition with the fiber and flavor.

5 Ways To Avoid Falling Prey To The Next Fad Diet

  1. Do Your Research. This is your health which is more important than a car, or clothing, or the various other things you spend copious amounts of time researching.

  2. Look At Studies, Not Celebrities. Science speaks loudest. 

  3. Be Realistic. Is eliminating entire food groups the real key to success? 

  4. Look at the Sustainability Factor. Small, consistent changes make the biggest differences.

  5. You are Someone, Not Everyone. Even though someone has success with a certain method, you may not. Each of our body’s is completely unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

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