The Appeal of Fad Diets

I remember how it felt in the early days of adopting a new diet, especially a diet that promised radiant health and effortless weightloss. Specifically veganism and paleo, though these promises are made by MANY diets out there – juicing, gluten-free, primal, keto, etc. These diets offered more than weight loss – they offered the promise of eternal health.

‘Eat like our ancestors ate, the way we evolved (or were designed) to eat! Disease is a product of our modern, western diet and lifestyle. You can avoid disease by eating the right food!’ -Fad Diet Rhetoric

I adopted the diets because I was scared. I was scared of cancer, mostly. Who isn’t? And the diets promised me control of my health. They offered freedom from cancer and other diseases. They offered reprieve from fear and worry. This is powerful stuff.

This image has been floating around the internet - it fits really well with this blog post and I'd love to give the creator credit! If you know who made it please let me know by emailing me at amber@gokaleo.com

This image has been floating around the internet – it fits really well with this blog post and I’d love to give the creator credit! EDIT: I found the original artist! You can see the original by clicking on the image!

And of course, the next logical step in this thought process was that people who are sick have brought sickness upon themselves by eating the wrong foods. And the diets and diet ‘leaders’ reinforced this belief, this sense of superiority. I knew something the sick people didn’t, and I was safe, and it was their own fault they were sick. They should have eaten more [insert magic food here] and less [insert food villain here]. Thank goodness I knew the truth.

When famous people got sick, people would speculate online about what they did wrong to make themselves vulnerable to disease. Too much processed food. Too much animal food. Too much soy. Too many carbs. There was always something, some grave mistake they’d made out of their willful ignorance, their selfishness, their laziness. Because they didn’t work hard enough, they didn’t read the right books, they didn’t care enough about their health, so now they were paying the price. And of course we who knew the truth, we who had worked hard enough, we who cared about our health, were safe. We knew how to avoid disease and death. We were doing it right.

For a while, it was really very calming. I wasn’t afraid any more. I believed I had control of my health. I would remain healthy. Thank goodness I’d found the truth and was doing it right.

And it was gratifying too. I felt a little smug. I felt a little superior. The ‘masses’ may have to deal with cancer, but I would not. Because I cared about my health, and they didn’t. If they cared about their health they would eat better. They were lazy, and lazy people are the ones who get cancer.

The diets preyed on my fear of mortality. The fear of mortality that we all have. This is why the diets are so appealing. They promise protection from scary things, from pain and suffering, even from death. Much like religion. Which is why so many people defend and promote their diets with the fervor of a religious zealot. The diets offer the same thing religion does – freedom from pain and worry and death.

Except that people still get sick and die even if they eat the ‘right’ diet. Diets don’t really protect us from disease and death. They simply prey on and exploit our fears.

Fruits and vegetables are good for you. You should eat (or drink) them. Don’t starve yourself. Get some protein. Sleep well and be physically active every day. Don’t smoke. Drink alcohol in moderation (or don’t drink). Wear your seatbelt. Wear a helmet (when appropriate). Cultivate close friendships. Engage in your community. Get some sunlight every day you can. Get your mammograms and skin cancer screenings. Maintain a healthy weight. If you do these things, you can reduce your risk of many diseases. But there are no guarantees, no matter how perfectly you eat. You may still get sick. People get sick. And it is not because they did something wrong. It is because we are mortal. But we can enjoy the time we have here, and the best way to enjoy it is to do the best you can and not stress out about the things that are out of your control, and be kind to yourself and others.

The appeal of Fad Diets is that they quell our fear of mortality. Temporarily. Because we all eventually realize it’s a false promise. We get sick, or someone we love gets sick, or we just come to our senses.

20 thoughts on “The Appeal of Fad Diets

  1. Very good, but disagree this is what draws people to religion. I mean, it certainly may to some, but I think one of the reason so many “rock-hard realists” fall into these traps is because they have nothing like religion to help them feel in control. Having said that, though, what you’re talking about is the most “fundamentalist” level of understanding. Most people of faith (that I’m aware of, anyway) do not stay at such a primitive level of understanding. Hopefully, people caught in this simplified way of looking at health and diet will grow, too.

    • “but I think one of the reason so many “rock-hard realists” fall into these traps is because they have nothing like religion to help them feel in control”

      People are religious for various reasons, some sound some completely bonkers. On the other hand people jump on the fad diet bandwagon out of fear, plain and simple. There is no scientific rational discussion beforehand. They have already made up their mind, or better yet, someone has made up their mind for them. They fear a very scientific topic (nutrition), w/o having the foggiest idea why. Religion isn’t science, but can be used as a metaphor for dogmatic convictions because SOME religious beliefs are made in blind faith and fear and not rational thought. The bottom line here, is that fad diets are based on fear. Period. Religion is more complicated BUT can be based on fear as well.

  2. I love how you demystifies the insanity that is loose in the world of diet and fitness …Thank you! <3

  3. I don’t want to get into the religion thing but I do agree with you – many times it is people looking for a way out or a quick fix of help – not all but many.

    The quick fix mentality for fad diets – people just want it all fast but a long healthy life does not work that way. I just saw a segment on Dr. Oz on the corset diet – HOLY CRAP! He was against it but I wonder how many now will research it.. UGH!

  4. I am grateful to the friend who recommended this site to me. Today’s post was especially meaningful. I have a friend who has been into Fad Diets for years and approaches them with religious fervor. First it was gluten free, then it was Atkins, and now it’s paleo. She has been trying to woo me over to the latter as I have gained 50 pounds since I broke my foot. But I think moderation in everything is key. Thanks!

  5. You’ve hit the nail on the head, I love this article. Only bit I was disappointed to see was the bit about being a “healthy weight”. This is where some people become obsessed and will stay on the diet merry-go-round forever, because of a hang-up about being a certain weight deemed healthy by others. This is the very thing that drives the diet industry. I think if you eat healthy and exercise then that is healthy. Different people will still come in all different shapes and sizes. I’ve know a number of thin people who have dropped dead from a massive heart attack. So if by healthy weight you mean thin, then I agree to disagree only on that point 🙂

      • I am kinda dissapointed. I have just bought some books on Paleo and I thought the concept was good. The no dairy and getting carbs from fruit and vegetable helps make me not feel bloated. I am a 43 y/o male 290 5’9 short stocky endomorph type body with muscle but more fat than I would like. I put weight on fast. I try to eat 6 small healthy meals a day. I carry my weight in my midsection. I am so tired of all the different things I read. There are so many theories. What does a guy do to get rid of this fat once and for all. My bmi says I should be 178. The last time I was 178 was in High School when I would drop from 220 to 178 in a month during wrestling season and you still could not see my abs. I am very frustrated and need some help and encouragement I guess. I have always been active. Three sport athlete in High School ect. but as I have gotten older it is harder to keep it off and I honestly am eating way better now. Keeping fried foods,dairy, bread, sweets out of my life for the most part. I do believe in cheating once in awhile with moderation.

  6. Wow… what an amazingly clear and wise insight on our dietary dogma insanity. You are such a blessing to the food/nutrition/psychology community. THANK YOU.

    (Just one little point – thermography is a risk-free alternative to mammograms)

  7. Thanks for this. I was wrapped up in the invincibility idea of eating a super healthy diet. I would have more energy all the time, be able to work harder, not get sick, and show the world that they are all missing out.

    Your post brought up an important point for me about acceptance. Sometimes we get sick. It’s not a big deal. It’s definitely not a judgment about our value as a human being.

    And you’re right. After playing the game long enough, I eventually got over the whole perfect diet bullshit.

    Thanks!

  8. FYI re mammograms

    Evidence-based recommendations for mammography have recently changed from yearly starting at age 40 to every 2 years starting at age 50. But that’s for the general population. Women at high risk may still be advised to have earlier or more frequent tests.

  9. “This is why the diets are so appealing. They promise protection from scary things, from pain and suffering, even from death. Much like religion.”

    Actually, I disagree. No religion worth its salt promises that adherents will be shielded from pain, suffering, and death. I think that religious belief can help adherents cope with the pain, suffering and death that are bound to happen to everyone. (And belief in no religion can help people cope with inevitable pain, suffering, and death, too.)

    Other than that, a very good post. I get so tired of adherents of various dietary plans claiming that if someone eats X way they’ll never get sick or they will be cured from all illness, and if they do get sick, or remain sick, they’re doing it wrong.

  10. I love you SO MUCH for writing this.

    I’m a severe asthmatic. I had my first attack at 6 hours old and spent most of my childhood in and out of hospitals and on “bursts” of prednisone, various inhalers, etc. When I was 7 years old the doctors wanted to screen me for food allergies so they put me on various extremely restricted diets on and off for months. I was starving all the time. Around this time I was also informed that they thought the asthma had to be psychosomatic. When I asked what that meant the doctor said I was “Probably faking the attacks just to get attention,”, despite the fact that mainline adrenaline shots and oxygen tents had saved my life on many occasions. Also, two people in my family have died from asthma attacks.

    This “you must be making it up” attitude has haunted my life. I’ve been told I was a horrible person in a past life and I’m being punished. I’ve been told I must be repressing some horrible memory (no I remember my horrors, thank you) and I’ve been told I needed to cleanse and that the medications that saved my life were the ones actually making me sick (?!?!?!?!).

    I did every cleanse. I was macrobiotic for a year and ended up in the hospital extremely anemic. I did extreme exercise, hoping to “out-condition” it or more accurately outrun it. I went to naturopaths who irradiated my blood, spiritual healers and did a 3-day vision quest in the desert drinking nothing but water for three days and not sleeping. And of course I have done EVERY diet.

    I recognize that there are many causes for disease and that we don’t know all of them. But we do suffer from a cultural attitude of blaming the victim for illness. It really sucks. So I appreciate this posting very, very, very much.

    Thank you!
    Robbie

  11. I am late to the party but this is a great post. I have come to realize (with professional help) that so many of my choices, including food, were not based in reality but in intense anxiety. I now do the “normal” things like you listed to stay healthy and don’t feel like every minor illness is a reason to get more extreme in the health/food area. Life is more enjoyable this way which is really healthy!

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  13. Ironically I never be became sick until I adopted the low-carb Paleo dogma. Now I’m dealing with a crashed thyroid and adrenals and having to work with a shrink to overcome orthorexia that actually landed me in the hospital with panic attacks! Slowly but surely coming out of it though and regaining ,y health, oh, and happily eating gluten AND dairy.

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