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Fad Diets: Helpful or Harmful?

Fad diets or popular diets have been around for years and ever since hitting the scene, there’s been a lot of controversy around their use. From what was probably the first diet book, Letter on Corpulence, published in 1864 by William Banting, illustrating how he lost weight by cutting out only a few foods to juice cleanses to diets involving strictly cabbage, dieting has a long and strange history. But what was once just an effort to get healthier is seemingly not so healthy anymore. With some diets involving people basically starving themselves and the emergence of diet culture, have fad diets become more harmful than helpful? 

Let's start with a brief history of diets. When referring to diets in this article I am referencing the definition that means a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons. So let’s keep that in mind. Firstly, Liquid diets have been known on the scene since 1028 when William the Conqueror went on a diet consisting of almost nothing except alcohol. Ultimately, the diet was effective in helping him lose weight. Additionally, in 1558 an Italian nobleman did something similar by restricting himself to 12 ounces of food and 14 ounces of wine daily. According to rumors, this led to him living to age 102, earning this diet the nickname “The Immortality Diet”. There are also diets of similar nature that encourage consuming mostly liquids as a means to lose weight including the “Drinking Man’s Diet,” also focusing on alcohol, and the “Apple Cider Vinegar Diet” a practice popular in the 50's and still practiced by some today. In this realm, there are also cleanses which are designed to rid the body of toxins. One such diet was the “Lemonade Diet” created in 1941 to eliminate cravings for junk food, alcohol, and drugs. It was re-popularized by Beyoncé in 2006 who allegedly lost 20 pounds in two weeks. 

Celebrity diets are well known due to the influence celebrities often have over people and the public’s desire to be like them. One such diet was the “Jenny Craig Diet,” commercialized in 1985, involving customized pre-prepared meals. And remember the diet involving strictly cabbage I mentioned earlier? That is the “Cabbage Soup Diet” popularized in the 1950's involving nothing but consuming soup for 7 days. Insane, right? 

So, as we can see, people have gone to extreme lengths when it comes to dieting and that hasn’t changed in today’s dieting trends. Some of today's fad dieting trends include juice cleanses involving consuming nothing but vegetable and plant juice for several days, the keto diet, involving putting your body in a state of ketosis by consuming a low amount of carbs and a high amount of fats and protein, and intermittent fasting, involving following an eating pattern where you can only eat during restricted time periods. While there can be benefits to some of these diets when done in a healthy and controlled manner, there are also negatives, one of which being the creation of diet culture.  


So, what is diet culture? Basically, diet culture glorifies weight loss no matter what the cost is. This is implemented in different ways in society and can be seen constantly. From the romanization of dieting by glorifying restraint and promoting ill-conceived notions of health to viewing the slim body as superior, diet culture is extremely harmful. Diet culture does not prioritize being healthy and instead emphasizes the societal standard that being skinny is better and even though people try to frame it in terms of  “fitness and health” many diets consider anything but that. Diet culture can play a hand in various harmful conditions such as body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and the overall insecurity of one’s self due to their body because it can lead to a desire to control one’s appearance and therefore food due to a pressure to look a certain way. 

People unknowingly participate in diet culture constantly whether it be praising somebody on their weight loss as if they were somehow “worse” before losing weight, judging somebody on what they eat, or just being fatphobic in general by displaying any form of bigotry that equates fatness with ugliness, inferiority, or immorality. Diet culture—which results from the glorification of all these restrictive eating habits—is not okay. Not to mention more of the pressure of diet culture falls on women who are expected to maintain a certain physique in society or risk being deemed undesirable.

I myself have succumbed to the pressure of diet culture and so have many of my friends. It is hard enough trying to navigate life but add the pressures of diet culture, which is also largely pushed by social media influencers, and it is downright unbearable at times. Feeling horrible and starving yourself for a whole day because you had a piece of bread is not fun. Even though you know it’s ridiculous, being skinny because society deemed it is better is still somehow more important. However, this is not the universal experience and diet culture can affect people in different ways. 

So, knowing people have been engaging in fad diets for decades, is it fair to assume they are necessary? Do they work or should we just switch to healthier practices of eating in general? Well, just because it is a diet doesn’t mean it is healthy. Many fad diets require you to nutritionally restrict yourself in one area or another meaning you are not getting all the fuel your body needs to function. Maintaining these fad diets is often difficult because you are going against what your body naturally wants to do. According to some doctors, seeing a dietitian is actually more beneficial because they are medically trained and can offer individual nutritional guidance.

However, knowing that not everybody has access to these kinds of resources, being mindful of what you eat, in a healthy way, can be good enough. Engaging in fad diets simply to lose weight and conform to a certain beauty standard can lead to poor mental health. Many of the fad diets people embark on to lose weight are not sustainable long term which results in weight cycling—the cyclical loss and gain of weight—and can take a mental toll according to some dietitians. We live in a world, especially in America, that is designed so that you eat in unhealthy ways and then spend a bunch of money trying to “get fit.” However, the commodification of fitness is another discussion for later. Still, losing weight, like everything, is a capitalist game in America, and with food deserts, inaccessibility, and simply different lifestyles, healthy living is not as easy as people want to make it seem. And dieting in a restrictive manner, especially for the wrong reasons, can harm your mental health so always be mindful if you find this happening to you. Listen to your body and do what is best for you. 

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