Going to wild lengths to try to lose weight is hardly a new concept. Though the methods may have evolved from infecting oneself with an actual parasite to chugging influencer-sponsored tummy-flattening tea, fad diets have been a part of modern Western life ever since “thin” became a societal beauty obsession.
It’s common knowledge that most extreme diets don’t work. The pounds will shed initially, but weight zooms right back on when the dieter goes back to eating normally.
In order to lose weight and keep it off, most nutritionists recommend a gradual and holistic lifestyle change, and yet plenty of people are sucked in by the quick-fix promise to ditch weight fast.
The quick weight loss these diets promise (and usually provide) comes at a cost. As Meredith Price, MS, RD, CDN told Considerable, “These diets are not sustainable, [and] often cut out certain food groups and/or important nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and lead to someone eventually binging because they’re likely restricting the foods that they love and enjoy. Over 90% of people who go on fad diets will gain the weight back and in many cases, gain back even more than they originally started with.”
Price explained that messing with our metabolism the way fad diets do can often have long-lasting or permanent side effects like a developed food allergies, vitamin deficiencies, and binge tendencies.
And like most things in life, there isn’t a quick, one-size-fits-all way to shed pounds fast.
As Price put it: “We are all so individualized and require different amounts of calories, protein, and fluids. Fad diets are cookie cutter. Just because one works for your friend does not mean it will for you. The healthiest and most sustainable way to reach your optimal weight is to eat a healthy, varied diet and to incorporate regular physical activity. It might not be the most convenient or easiest, but it’s the reality.”
As wild as some fad diets seem, there’s an initial reason most of them take off. Insight from a scientific study or new research about food properties usually spark diet trends, and not all of them are all bad.
In this look at the most popular fad diets throughout the decades, we’ll check out which diets became the low-fat cream of the crop, and find out what experts have to say about their viability.
1830s: The Graham Diet
The high-fiber vegetarian diet crafted by Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham claimed to cure sexual lust and alcoholism by reducing spice, meat, and dairy.
It didn’t exactly work — and Graham’s namesake crackers have ironically become a beloved staple as the cornerstone of sugary s’mores staple.
1930s: The Hollywood/Grapefruit Diet
The Hollywood Diet, popularized by 1930s housewives, required eating half a grapefruit before every meal (or, in extreme cases, instead of full meals), since grapefruits were believed to contain fat-burning acids.
The image of a grapefruit as a bitter diet food, often paired with cottage cheese, has become an infamous pop-culture reference, portrayed in plenty of movies. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe herself swore by its effects on her waistline.
1950s: The Cabbage Soup Diet
One of the appeals of the cabbage soup diet is that you can eat as much cabbage soup as you like while on it, but how much would you really want to eat? Some versions allow eating other lean foods like chicken, brown rice, and vegetables to accompany your soup.
A week of the diet is said to help you shed several pounds (and induce plenty of flatulence), but like any fad, results often reverse when dieters go back to their normal eating habits
1970s: The Cookie Diet
If eating cookies to lose weight sounds too good to be true, that’s because — surprise, surprise — it is! In 1975, Dr. Sanford Siegal introduced his packaged Cookie Diet cookies to act as replacements for breakfast and lunch, followed by a “sensible dinner” of the dieter’s choice.
The brand and competitors like it are still around today.
1980s: Ayds Candy
Ayds candies were an appetite suppressant designed to make the consumer simply crave less food. They went out of business in the mid-’80s because their name bore an unfortunate resemblance to one of the most tragic medical crises of the era.
1990s: Low-fat / No-fat
The problem was that most low-fat or no-fat foods contain extra sugar to make them taste good and are full of processed chemicals. Today, it’s widely understood that you’re better off eating whole ingredients in moderation than swapping the fat for artificial junk.
2000s: The Atkins Diet
In 2003, Dr. Robert C. Atkins published “Atkins for Life,” sparking the next massive diet craze. Throwing the fat-fearing nation for a loop, it encouraged eating high-fat whole foods and declared carbs the enemy.
Effective as it was for weight loss, it was attributed to several cases of ketosis.
2010s: The Era of Extremes
From eliminating gluten to cutting out cooked or solid foods entirely, this decade has seen its share of extreme diets.
Popular diets like paleo, keto, and the Whole 30 rely on eliminating groups of foods from your diet, either for thirty days or indefinitely.
While some people claim that they feel incredible and see immediate results when they remove gluten or dairy, for example, others report feelings of low energy and increased hunger.
As comical or absurd as some former fad diets may sound, it’s important to remember the very real health risks that accompany many of them.
Alice Figueroa, MPH, RDN, is founder of aliceinfoodieland.com, a blog about healthy eating. She summed it up for Considerable: “When people hear the word ‘diet,’ it immediately elicits the notion of restricting food, counting calories, being hungry, or fad diets. A diet is the food and drink regularly consumed for nourishment. I’d like for people to reclaim the word diet and have it mean something positive!
“Adopting a healthy diet is about reducing consumption of foods that make us sick overtime, and increasing our intake of health-supportive foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and protein,” Figueroa continued.
“We need to break away from our society’s philosophy of restrictive dieting. While I do not recommend that anyone eat fast food regularly, if you want to enjoy pizza on Friday night with your family, I encourage you to do so! It’s all about balance.”
Bottom line: If the drastic weight loss promised by a quick diet sounds too good to be true — chances are, it is.