Healthy Weight Loss: How to Spot a Fad Diet

Why service members should avoid fad diets
Fad diets are not the answer to sustainable weight loss. (Lance Cpl. Crystal Druery/Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego)

Healthy weight loss can seem quite boring when you compare it to the "quick fixes" you see advertised in just about every form of media. When you compare one to two pounds of weight loss a week through a healthy plan to 10 to 20 pounds per week some other way, it is easy to get sucked in by altered before-and-after pictures.

The term "fad diet" predates someone recommending losing weight by eating nothing but cabbage soup for a week. Many fad diets work in the short term but are not a sustainable solution to long-term weight loss or health.

Remember, these diets likely not only will sell a book; "for best results," you will need to buy supplements, pre-packaged foods, juices and smoothies to receive most of your calories from that particular line of products. Once off the diet, many people gain weight again because they did not learn a healthy way of eating that is enjoyable and easy to follow for the rest of their lives.

You must have a 3,500-calorie deficit to lose a pound of body weight (stored fat). If you achieve a daily reduction of 500 calories in your diet, you can lose a pound in a week. Add in workouts that also burn 500 calories in a day, and you will burn another pound in a week.

Typically, the best and longest-lasting results are from programs that will yield one to two pounds per week of weight loss. The trick is to be patient. Think about one month ago. If you had started reducing your daily intake by 500 calories and added 500 calories more of activity, you would be 10 pounds lighter.

Can you burn more than 500 calories in a day or reduce more than 500 calories from your current intake? Sure, but you should not restrict your daily calories to less than 1,500 for a woman and 1,800 for a man without professional nutritional advice from a registered dietitian. See this related article on the 1,000 calories that will kill us or save us.

Here are some of the many ways to spot a fad diet:

The quick fix. The short-term diet that promises significant weight-loss results in just days versus weeks is the one you should ignore. These are mainly water-loss diet plans and likely will take you back to your starting weight as quickly as you took it off, once you go back to normal eating and drinking.

Diet timeline. When a diet has a beginning and end date, that should be a red flag that it is not a healthy alternative for long-term health and wellness -- though it may reduce your weight by limiting calories, restricting food groups and dehydrating you. Proper eating is a lifestyle decision that should not have a beginning and end date. Statements, such as "lose 10 pounds in a week," are red flags that should make you realize that this diet does not teach you how to eat for the years to follow.

Eliminates macronutrients from the menu. Any diet that recommends the complete elimination of fats, carbohydrates or protein from a diet is not one you should consider. Though many have succeeded with weight loss using these plans, it is still not a long-term solution. There are diets that eliminate sugar, processed foods, trans fats, fried foods and other man-made foods and methods of preparation. These are logical and healthy eliminations and push more of a natural food diet planning. Unless you're under a doctor's supervision due to a medical condition, it is not recommended that you eliminate macronutrients.

There are no magic foods. Diets that require you to eat a magic fruit or, worse, require you to eat their "proprietary blend" of supplements added to a shake that replaces a meal are also plans to avoid. You likely will lose weight and money quickly, but you will gain the weight back just as quickly and still be out of the initial investment.

Before-and-after pictures are great, but … Fad diets use marketing to sell their way of eating. You will see incredible before-and-after pictures, usually featuring models wearing very little clothing. Diets with testimonial pictures of nearly naked people are likely in the "fad diet" category and usually contain many of the elements listed above.

No exercise needed. Just start on your running program immediately and run away from any diet that claims you do not need to exercise. We all need to exercise or get some form of physical activity, regardless of our weight-loss goals.

Moving more and eating less are requirements for healthy weight loss. Find some way to walk as much as you can and reduce meal portion sizes if you are eating a healthy diet -- but just too much of it. If any diet says you do not need to exercise to lose weight, expect that you'll be eating in a method that is unhealthy and not a solution that will maintain any weight loss for the rest of your life.

The healthful way to eat and lose weight is a balanced daily food plan of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, protein and fat sources. This method will yield sustainable results for long-term health. Smaller portions that create a caloric deficit at the end of each day will cause the weight loss you are seeking without starving or dehydrating yourself. Eating fewer calories, combined with physical activity that burns off the calories consumed, will allow you to lose weight and get in shape at the same time. Using this weight-loss method also can increase cardiovascular ability and build stronger joints and firmer muscles.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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