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April 17, 2018

The Trouble with Fad Diets

The Trouble with Fad Diets

Dieting is ubiquitous in our culture. Everywhere we turn, there’s another commercial for a weight loss pill, an article about a new “miracle” diet, or a show like The Biggest Loser reinforcing the perception that society values thin bodies and respects those who are willing to go to extremes to lose weight.

Unfortunately, this cultural pressure leads a lot of people to try the latest fad diets. But the truth is, most of these diets aren’t healthy or effective. Diets often demonize certain kinds of food and even cut out entire food groups that our bodies need to properly function. Also, many people fall into a stressful cycle of yo-yo dieting—losing weight for short periods of time, only to gain it back.

Dieting is also a significant risk factor for developing an eating disorder. That’s because diets almost always involve restrictive behaviors. When we restrict what we eat, we deny our body something that it’s signaling it needs. Engaging in extreme restriction can result in malnutrition and starvation, which, at a neurobiological level, could trigger an eating disorder.

Of course, not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder. Some people have a biological predisposition that puts them at much higher risk for an eating disorder than others. Restricting food intake, dieting, or otherwise changing the way someone eats can trigger this genetic predisposition. This trigger, on top of environmental factors, can lead to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating or other eating disorders. So, if you happen to be vulnerable to an eating disorder, beginning a restrictive diet could lead to an illness that was not previously present.

Even if you aren’t at higher risk for an eating disorder, it’s important to be aware of the risks associated with dieting. An approach to food, eating, and weight-based on a balanced self-care perspective rather than external, diet-based perspective will promote health and well-being. If you know you may be susceptible to disordered eating because you have a family history of eating disorders, this is especially true. Overall, fad diets have very little upside, but a large potential downside.

If you have questions or concerns about weight or nutrition, consult a dietitian or other health care professional for guidance. Changes in diet and weight can drastically affect physical and mental health. A professional can help you cut through the noise of a diet-obsessed culture and develop a healthy relationship with food.


Mark Warren is the chief medical officer of The Emily Program. He is also one of the original founders of the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders, which became The Emily Program – Cleveland in 2014. A Cleveland native, he is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Medical School and completed his residency at Harvard Medical School. He served as Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Medical Director of University Hospital Health System’s Laurelwood Hospital. A past vice-chair for clinical affairs at the Case School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, he continues on the Clinical Faculty of the Medical School, teaching in both the Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics. He is currently a faculty member and former chair of the Board of Governors at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. Dr. Warren is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a two-time recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award of the national Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and a winner of the Woodruff Award. He leads the Males and Eating Disorders special interest group for the Academy of Eating Disorders.

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