We're warned about them time and time again. Yet each year, untold numbers of people pin their hopes on quick weight-loss plans.
While these fad diets can trigger an initial weight loss, experts say your bikini fantasies will likely soon come to an end -- and you may end up looking and feeling worse than before you started.
"The reason these diets work is because they severely restrict calories, so the minute you stop the plan and begin to eat normally, you are destined to gain all the weight back," says nutritionist Cindy Moore, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and director of nutrition therapy at The Cleveland Clinic.
In this respect, she says, nearly every quick weight-loss plan has a built-in failure mechanism. But because most dieters blame themselves when the pounds come back, they may be quick to hop on the next quick weight-loss bandwagon.
"They keep thinking success is just around the corner, and that it lies in the next diet, the next fad, the next expert with a new answer. But unless the underlying food plan is a healthy diet you can follow for life, there is just no way you are going to get lasting results," says Gyni Holland, a nutritionist at New York University Medical Center.
Even more important: The more times you jump on and off any quick weight-loss plan, the farther you may get from reaching your weight loss goals.
"There is some evidence to show that every time you lose weight and gain it back, your metabolism changes in such a way that it becomes more difficult to lose weight the next time around,'' says Pam Birkenfeld, a nutritionist and registered dietitian at the Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y. It's also easier to put on pounds after you've lost some, she says.
Of even greater concern: A study presented at the American Heart Association's annual meeting in early 2003 offered evidence that yo-yo dieting -- losing and gaining weight over and over -- can dramatically increase the risk of heart disease, particularly among women.
According to researchers from the University of Michigan Health System, their small but significant study of 16 postmenopausal women found that those who had lost and gained 10 pounds five or more times over their lifetimes had an increase in circulatory problems linked to heart disease. Although the doctors can't say why, they believe there's a connection.
Are Quick Weight-Loss Plans Ever OK?
Though it's clear that fad diets don't pave the road to permanent weight control, some experts believe that, under certain circumstances, they can have some short-term benefits. If you follow the plans to the letter, says Birkenfeld, you will see a quick weight loss -- which can act as a powerful motivator.
"As long as you limit your time on the diet, and you follow up with a sensible, low-calorie eating plan to take you the rest of the way, the fad diet could be a good way to start your weight-loss engine," says Birkenfeld.
Some doctors also think it's OK to use a quick weight-loss diet as a temporary jump-start, especially if your health depends on losing weight.
"If your cholesterol, blood sugar, or blood pressure is very high, then not only can these diets help to get some weight off fast, doing so, and seeing the results, may encourage you to pursue a more sensible weight-loss plan and to stick with it," says Stephen Sondike, MD, director of the Nutrition and Wellness Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
In all instances, he says, the key to weight-loss success lies in using the fad diet for initial weight loss only, then immediately switching to a more sensible, low-calorie eating plan that is both safe and enjoyable for long-term use.
"What also makes a major difference is having a maintenance diet in mind -- a plan that you can really live with, featuring foods you like to eat and are easy to prepare. That's the only way you can keep the weight off," Sondike says.
Indeed, studies show that even if you've lost weight following a sensible eating plan, you're likely to regain weight if you go back to your previous eating habits.
How To Spot a Fad Diet
Though it's sometimes obvious which diets are fads, it's also easy to be fooled, especially if the diet is supported by a professional-looking web site or written by an author who appears to have solid credentials.
"Too often these very legitimate-looking venues are devised by people with little or no experience in nutrition or weight control, so don't fall for a handful of testimonials by people who won't even give their last name as proof that a diet works or that it is safe," Moore says.
Another misleading factor, says Holland, is how long a particular quick weight-loss plan has been around.
"Just because a diet has longevity doesn't mean it has long-term usefulness for you," Holland says.
So how can you tell if your weight-loss plan is a fad or a sensible eating program that can help you reach your dieting goals? The experts interviewed by WebMD offered some guidelines. A weight-loss plan is probably a fad diet if:
- The menu features extremely limited food choices, such as only grapefruits and melon for fruits, or rice and pasta for starches.
- You must cut out an entire food group, like carbohydrates.
- You choose your meals from only one food group, maybe all protein or all carbohydrates.
- The diet eliminates all fats.
- It promises ultra-fast weight loss, a pound per day or more.
- The diet is used to sell a product, such as herbal weight-loss pills or a specific food.
- The weight-loss claims are based on unproven science, such as the idea that combining certain foods can cause you to gain or lose weight.
- The diet's promoters put down traditional medical experts by saying that doctors don't understand the way the program works.
- The promoters make claims that sound too good to be true -- you can lose weight while you sleep or eat lots of fattening foods and still lose weight.
- The explanation of how the diet works is simplistic, and promoters say that the true explanation is too complex for most people to understand.