This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 103
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Fad Diets: Seduction and Deceit

Anne Sullivan

Americans have long been plagued with the serious problem of obesity. As the country obsesses over weight loss and the newest diet plans, the population ironically continues to experience increased body fat. The basic premises to healthy living seem simple: eat a balanced diet while remaining physically active, and burn more calories than those consumed. Americans are even given specific guidelines—outlined in the food pyramid—as to the appropriate quantities of each food. Why, then, is obesity one of the leading health risks confronting Americans? It may be that the seemingly "simple" and healthy road to weight loss is actually an arduous and long-term process. It is therefore enticing to substitute sensible diets and exercise regimens with what are known as "fad diets"—diets that promise quick and easy results. These diets have achieved enormous popularity despite the copious research proving their dangers and inefficiency. The following exploration will hopefully elucidate many of the mysteries and myths surrounding "fad diets."

Although they may assert very different "truths" about human biology and resulting dietary needs, most fad diets share several common characteristics. The majority claim to provide revolutionary information and insight, but are, in fact, simply replicas of older fad diets (2). Many will posit the vast claim that a specific food or group of foods is the "enemy" and should be banned from one's diet (2). This is a myth—there is not a single product which is capable of causing weight gain or loss (2). Fad diets usually promise immediate results and offer lists of "good" and "bad" foods (5). They are usually not supported by scientific research or evidence. Rather, the information they provide is derived from a single study, or by an analysis which ignores variety among human being (5).

The popular diet commonly known as "The Zone" falls into the category of fad diets. This plan was created by Barry Sears, Ph.D., author of The Zone, in 1995. Sears' principal argument is that human beings are genetically programmed to function best on only two food groups: lean proteins and natural carbohydrates (3). He claims that the cultivation of grains is a modern development, and that our genetic makeup has not yet evolved to require such foods. Essentially, carbohydrates cause excessive weight gain and are responsible for America's obesity epidemic (3). Consumption of carbohydrates, according to Sears, stimulates insulin production—a process that converts excess carbohydrates into fat (3). He argues that America's phobia of fat has inspired a diet which is counterproductive. The solution is to substitute complex carbohydrates for fat (2). Critics of this diet argue that Sears' theory regarding insulin production is an "unproven gimmick" (4). The diet is potentially dangerous because scientific research observes a strong correlation between animal fat—which contains more carcinogens from industrial waste than any other product—and cancer (4). Sears also ignores both the problem of cholesterol and the fact that vegetarians have a smaller chance of developing heart disease and cancer (3).

A second well-known fad diet is called Sugar Busters!. This plan, created by H. Leighton Steward and associates, labels sugar as the enemy because it releases insulin and is then stored as body fat (6). Sugar Busters! demands that both refined and processed sugars be abolished from one's diet (this includes potatoes, white rice, corn, carrots, and beets) (6). The revised diet also becomes a high protein, low carbohydrate plan that poses the same threats as does "The Zone." Sugar is not, in fact, naturally toxic and it is dangerous to eliminate complex carbohydrates which are a good source of fiber (6). Again, this plan calls for the complete elimination of a certain food, ignoring the fact that the human body needs a multitude of foods to remain healthy (6). Other fad diets include Protein Power Lifeplan , (5) and Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, which also malign carbohydrates (5). Both of these diets promote high fat foods which increase one's risk for heart disease, cancer, high cholesterol, and liver and kidney damage (5).

Fad diets are clearly extreme and often irrational plans that lack valid evidence and scientific research. Aside from being unhealthy, they are often ineffective as well. High-fat diets may promote short term weight-loss, but most of the loss is caused by dehydration (4). As the kidneys try to destroy the excess waste products of fats and proteins, water is lost. High fat diets are low in calories, causing the depletion of lean body mass with little fat loss—another reason for immediate weight loss (4). Fad diets argue that the human body responds to carbohydrates in a way that causes weight gain. If Americans are gaining weight, it is due to the quantities they consume—the excessive calories, not the carbohydrates themselves, encourage obesity. If fad diets work, in spite of being extremely unhealthy, it is because one's calorie intake decreases (The Zone's recommended diet calls for less than 1,000 calories a day) (1). There is nothing miraculous about the foods which these diets prescribe. Furthermore, these diets are extremely difficult to maintain, since they often ban certain products and require the repeated consumption of others—making long-term weight loss impossible.

A proper diet should place long-term health before immediate results. Fad diets do just the opposite—long term use of these plans may pose serious health risks. They tend to be low in calcium, fiber, and other important vitamins and minerals (2). As previously stated, fad diets are usually high-fat diets. This presents a host of dangers: increased risk for heart disease and atherosclerosis (a hardening of the arteries), and an increase in low density lipoproteins (LDL), which carry cholesterol to the body's tissues, are among the most serious (2). Furthermore, a drastic reduction in carbohydrates causes the body to believe that it is being starved (7). Continued practice of these extreme diets may cause irrevocable damage to the liver and kidneys. The liver converts proteins into the necessary amino acids, and urea and nitrogen are the two by-products of this process (7). But excessive protein in the body places great stress and overwork on the kidneys and liver (7).

The obvious health dangers posed by fad diets combined with their failure to encourage long-term weight loss would logically deter people from embracing these "gimmicks." They continue, however, to remain the preferred substitute for healthy diet and exercise plans. What is so appealing about fad diets? Our world is set up in a way that encourages obesity. Modern transportation and technology have rendered physical activity unnecessary . (1) In addition, Americans have access to an enormous variety of delicious, and often unhealthy, foods. It clearly requires great effort to maintain a healthy weight. Rather than suffering the long and difficult process required by sensible diet plans, most are content to embrace the "easy fix"—the fad diet (1). It is, after all, human nature to seek the easy route, the short cut. When someone knows one person that lost weight quickly, he/she is likely to ignore the warnings in the quest for fast results.

It is important to note that it is entirely possible for fad diets to prove effective for certain individuals. Each person's body is different, operating and reacting to certain diets in various manners. Although fad diets are, in general, dangerous and ineffective, it is crucial to note that they may work for the particular individual whose body is programmed to respond positively to such extreme constraints. Similarly, some of these diets show signs of a rational philosophy. Sugar Busters!, for example, advocates caution against sugar products. This argument is indeed valid (it is only when this plan is taken to the extreme that it becomes dangerous). This idea divulges perhaps the most significant gap in fad diet theory—that which involves the great diversity in human genetic makeup. Fad diets operate under the assumption that the body functions and responds to certain foods in a standard and fixed way. Diversity, however, is the most basic principle in human biology. What works for one person may be completely ineffective for another. The fact that fad diets blatantly disregard this most fundamental truth renders them unreliable and ineffective.


1)Pros and Cons of Fad Diets

2)Fad Diets: What you may be Missing,

3)Key #1 Follow The Zone Diet,

4)Dubunking the Zone Diet,

5)Popular Diets: The Good, The Fad, and The Iffy ,

6) Is the Sugar Busters Diet For You? ,

7)Protein Fad Diets: Knowledge Does not Always Alter Behavior

| Biology 103 | Course Forum Area | Biology | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:19 CDT