Improving your health can be tough — so tough that only 6.8% of U.S. adults are considered to be in excellent cardiometabolic health. On the long road to health, it’s easy to feel impatient and get discouraged, so it’s understandable why a new weight-loss or health-improvement program that promises “fast results” might seem enticing. But be forewarned: Results are usually only fast when the program is a fad. By the time you (and countless others) realize that the results neither promote true health nor stand the test of time, the trend will be long gone.
The best way to stop “trend chasing” is to build a strong knowledge base of how your body works and then identify the sustainable (often unglamorous) health practices that support it. Feeling confident in your own health routines will keep you from getting sucked into the hype of a new “magic solution.” In the meantime, it’s useful to have a few quick-and-dirty ways to identify when a health trend is merely a passing fad. Because let’s face it: The temptation to take the “easy shortcut” might lessen, but it never really goes away.
How to Identify Health Fads That Won’t Last
The most common-sense way to assess whether a new health program is a fad is to ask: Does it sound too good to be true? If so, it probably is. Beyond that, here are five more red flags that the new approach you’re considering won’t yield the long-lasting results you want — plus some ideas for what to do instead.
#1. Hyperfocusing on One Food or Food Group
Ever hear that two glasses of celery juice per day can cure all chronic disease? What about eating grapefruit with each meal to whittle your waistline? Celery and grapefruit certainly have healthful properties, like fiber and vitamin C, but don’t get fooled into thinking that one food has all the answers. No single food has all the macro and micronutrients your body needs to function — and a surplus can be problematic, too. For example, if you eat enough naturally yellow or orange foods that you’re consuming more than 30 milligrams of carotenoids per day (e.g., 10 large carrots or two cantaloupes), the palms of your hands can turn orange — a condition called carotenemia.
Instead of relying too heavily on one food or food group, think about how that food can be incorporated into a varied diet. Observational studies have shown that the more variety of foods you eat, the lower your risk of metabolic syndrome. So, smear that celery with some peanut butter or pair that grapefruit with a cup of yogurt, and mix things up!
#2. Restricting Too Much, for Too Long
Sure, you will likely lose weight if you spend a week eating only cabbage soup or partaking in the Master Cleanse (a spicy blend of lemon juice, cayenne, and maple syrup). Drastic food restrictions cut calories, which, in the short term, can result in lower numbers on the scale. However, changes are usually short lived; once the cleanse or diet is over and you return to your normal ways of eating, the pounds typically come piling back on.
The solution may sound like you therefore need to cut calories “forever,” but this is not only unsustainable, it also won’t yield the results you want. If you attempt to severely restrict your caloric intake for too long, your body will adapt by lowering its energy expenditure, making any additional weight loss efforts more difficult. Furthermore, it can lead to real bodily harm. For example, consuming less than 50% of your estimated energy needs for longer than one month sets you up for severe malnutrition risk, which can lead to downstream consequences like impaired immune function and osteoporosis.
Instead, if your goal with restriction is weight loss, consider an approach where you’ll still eat and drink enough to get the energy and micronutrients your body needs to function at its best. Intermittent fasting is one option. This approach minimizes the time you eat, and often therefore the quantity; however, it still allows for variety in your diet and gives you enough time to eat appropriate amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains.
#3. Insisting that One Size Fits All
Be wary of anyone who claims that their approach is the best approach for everyone. Every body is unique, so the methods that you need to achieve your goals will be specific to you. For example, a raw foods diet may work well for one person, but for another who suffers from IBS, too much fiber could be a disaster.
When considering a new dietary approach, consider: What goals are you hoping to achieve, and will this method move you closer to achieving them? Can it work within your preferences and lifestyle? Do you have any medical conditions or other factors that would make adopting this approach risky or maladaptive?
Use questions like these to determine if a strategy will work for you. Then, if you choose to adopt it, continue to monitor how your body is adapting. By staying vigilant, you can tweak your approach and course correct according to what your body needs.
#4. Relying on Supplements and Meal Replacements
If a regimen’s success depends on you purchasing a specific product or brand of supplement, think twice about adopting this approach. For example, many weight-loss programs sell shakes, snacks, or proprietary supplement blends, some of which may help achieve the outcome you want (e.g., whey protein for a strength-building regimen), but many of which are unnecessary and just another way for the company to make money. Plus, with some diets that consist only of shakes and meal replacement bars, you are ultimately doing yourself a disservice: Not only are these products typically highly processed and less nutrient-dense, but they’re also incompatible with real-life situations. (How will you be able to go out to dinner with friends or family if all you’re allowed to eat is a SlimFast bar?)
The most healthful nutrition approach you can take will focus on whole, minimally-processed foods. However, if you are interested in certain supplements or meal-replacement products, feel free to incorporate them into your routine — just don’t make them the star of the show. Use a shake or bar when you’re in a hurry, but if you have time for a home-cooked meal, focus on fresh foods instead.
#5. Lacking Scientific Evidence
Surprise, surprise: Not everything you read on the internet is true. Between YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and more, there are plenty of platforms where anyone can share nearly infinite opinions. However, opinion doesn’t always translate to fact. If a new fad or cure-all can’t provide some supporting scientific literature, there is cause for concern.
Any credible dietary approach should have some science behind it. (For example, a good body of research says that dietary fiber is beneficial to humans, so a fiber-forward dietary approach is one worth considering!) When you’re evaluating a recommendation, look for references, credentials, and sources that have a longstanding history of recommending approaches backed by science. If you’re still curious as to whether a new dietary approach has legs, you can always consult a dietitian, who is trained to apply evidenced-based advice.
Cure-alls and fads are, unfortunately, created with one thing in mind: hype. And unlike real, science-backed solutions, hype doesn’t last. Therefore, when you’re trying to lose weight and gain health, find an approach that is balanced, unrestrictive, modifiable, free of branded supplements, and backed by science. Remember: Sustainable change may take time and effort, but it will ultimately lead to the weight, health, and longevity you desire.