• Claire Desmarais

Why fad diets are harmful to your health

*Editor's Note: I am not a licensed physician or dietician. All of my knowledge comes from outside sources like peer-reviewed journals and online health publishers.

In the last few years, people have become more health conscious in terms of the food they put in their bodies. It seems like every week I find another fitness or health guru with an Instagram account detailing rigorous workouts and meal plans.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that more people are aware of what they’re putting into their bodies. I live in Portland where a New Seasons or Whole Foods has every organic, dairy-free or gluten-free food you could imagine.

But what I’ve also witnessed in the last few years is an obsession over what you eat. We’ve started to count calories or measure fat, sugar and carbohydrate intake. It’s an obsession with numbers, and it is far from healthy. Food should be used as fuel for your body. Being cognizant of what you put into your body and what you’re not putting into your body requires effort.

Fad diets specifically have perpetuated a culture of cutting or restricting foods that might be necessary for bodily functions. The Paleo diet, Ketogenic diet and Whole30 can be dangerous and can lead to the opposite effect desired. You should never cut out necessary food groups to manipulate your body’s natural metabolic state unless you have consulted with a doctor or are severely overweight.

We’ve devolved from just a normal diet — restricting daily caloric intake — to fad diets, which often become popular due to the quick weight loss as a result. It’s what you see in magazines or on social media.

But I’m not some person looking above and casting down shame on you if you have done these diets. I’ve done the Paleo diet, which consists of only eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, and protein, for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t eating healthy whatsoever and needed to drastically change my diet, so I started Paleo.

Having a protein and fat for breakfast in the mornings can help to satisfy hunger, while food items like cereal can lead to a blood sugar spike and cause a crash even before lunchtime.

I had the support of a physical trainer who was able to explain to me the benefits of the diet and why it was a better option than the Keto diet. While I was eating healthier, I became obsessed with counting calories and the types of food I could eat. That wasn’t healthy. But after a while, I finally realized that what I needed from the diet was to kickstart my healthier lifestyle rather than restrict myself.

The Paleo diet allowed me to see the benefit of eating fresh and healthier foods as opposed to processed foods. These diets can be a great way to kickstart healthy eating, but should only be done for a few weeks. Fad diets are not sustainable and should never go longer than about 30 days.

But while I may sound bias towards the Paleo diet, I think it is the tamest of them all. Also, a lot of individuals don’t understand how the Keto diet or Whole30 work or how harmful they can be on your body.

Let me break it down for you. According to Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital, the Keto diet is primarily to treat or reduce epileptic seizures in children but has been used for short-term weight loss as well.

The Keto diet is a high-fat and low-sugar (glucose) intake diet which attempts to change your body to use fat as a source for fuel instead of sugar. Instead of eating carbohydrates like grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits, you focus on foods high in fat.

The goal: Make your liver produce ketones and reach a state of ketosis. According to WebMD, your liver produces ketones when “you don't have enough insulin in your body to turn sugar (glucose) into energy so your body uses fat instead.”

“One of my biggest gripes with the Keto lifestyle is that people can still eat crap and technically be in ketosis,” said Anthony Gustin, founder of Perfect Keto and Equip Foods.

Many people eat highly saturated fats like dairy products or tropical oils that can have adverse effects.

This is a simplified version, but this high-fat diet can lead to serious health risks if someone tries to do this without researching the diet or consulting with a dietician or physician. According to the Harvard Health Publishing School, some risks include risk for heart disease, nutrient deficiency, liver problems, kidney problems, constipation and fuzzy thinking and mood swings.

I personally do not support the Keto diet, especially for young, college-aged women like myself who have no need to completely change my body’s natural functions. This diet shouldn’t just be done lightly or to see how resilient you are. Educate yourself and understand that you can live a healthy life without cutting out whole food groups.

Paleo zucchini muffins (gluten-free) provide a healthy alternative to just normal muffins that can be high in sugar.

Along with the Keto diet, Whole30 has also become very popular. Originally created by Melissa Hartwig, this diet centers on cutting out dairy, carbs and legumes for 30 days. Even on the company’s website, they note that Whole30 is an elimination diet. Elimination diets are typically used by doctors to learn if a patient has adverse reactions to certain food groups, like dairy or gluten, and eliminates them for a certain period of time. Then, they reintroduce each food group one at a time.

While Whole30 is tamer than the Keto diet, it continues to promote restrictive habits that can later lead to an obsession with limiting food intake. Both the Keto and Whole30 diet also received a 2.1 out of 5 overall on the U.S. News and World Report Best Diets of 2019. The Keto diet and Whole30 tied with a ranking of #38.

While I understand these diets can help promote weight loss, at what cost? Paleo and Whole30 diets can be a great way to kickstart a healthy lifestyle if done correctly. I want people to realize that food should be used fuel for their body, not just a means to satisfy a craving.

Having the right nutrients and understanding what your body needs can lead you to live an overall healthier life. Focus on eating real, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. Your body will thank you for not restricting it.