These diets are iffy, but they do make *some* good points.
The conversation on dietary trends tends to be black and white: This diet is good, this one is bad, this one’s great, this one’s awful. It’s true that some fad diets are objectively bad (like that “air diet,” which is exactly what it sounds like), and many can cause nutrition deficiencies, are difficult to sustain, and can lead to yo-yo dieting.
You might think, Wait, so-and-so diet helped my friend lose 20 pounds and clear up her acne—how can it be as unhealthy as nutritionists say it is? While that may be true, the results are likely temporary, most fad diets aren’t sustainable.
The truth is, however, fad diets aren’t all bad—some have a grain of truth to them. Nuggets of good advice may be hidden within the diet’s overly rigid rulebook, which may help some people improve their health—at least temporarily.
It’s ill-advised to follow all the rules of a fad diet, but here are some of the guidelines that these trendy diets *actually* got right.
1. The Paleo Diet: Ditch the processed foods.
The essence of the paleo diet is to “eat like a caveman,” or in other words, eat only the foods that your ancestors would have eaten before the industrialization of food. This puts a big focus on whole foods—fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds—and animal protein. Learn more about what the paleo diet is here.
Obviously, Hostess cupcakes, BBQ potato chips, and s’mores Pop-Tarts don’t make the cut. Heavily processed foods tend to be lower in essential micronutrients and higher in sodium, sugar, saturated fat, and calories. In fact, over 70 percent of sodium intake in the average American diet comes from processed foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Here are 4 health problems caused by a high-salt diet.)
In a 2017 study of over 9,000 adults, those who ate the lowest percentage of ultra-processed foods had higher intake of protein, fiber, vitamins A, C, D, and E, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium. Additionally, they had lower intakes of carbs, added sugar, and saturated fat.
Those following the paleo diet are likely to see some benefits to their health from cutting out ultra-processed foods, especially if those foods previously made up a large part of their diet. Focusing your diet more on fresh, whole foods is always a good idea—it can improve your heart, skin, energy levels, weight, and even your cognitive functioning.
So here’s the problem: It’s overly restrictive to ban *all* processed foods. Having a bag of pretzels every once in a while isn’t going to destroy your health. Plus, some processed foods are actually pretty healthy.
2. The Keto Diet: Embrace healthy fats.
Experts have a lot to say about the dangers of the keto diet, which restricts carb intake to about 15 grams a day (the equivalent of half an apple). This diet was designed to prevent seizures in children with epilepsy. It mimics a fasting state by depriving the body of carbs, the body’s preferred energy source. Instead, the keto diet focuses on fats, and eventually the body switches to burning fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates.
The renewed interest in the keto diet as a weight-loss diet has serious ramifications, but it has at least had one positive effect: Helping Americans ditch their long-held fear of dietary fats.
Unsaturated fat (think avocado, olives, and nuts) is a crucial macronutrient. It can help lower “bad” cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association. It also provides energy—as the keto diet suggests—and helps your body absorb nutrients. Here are sources of healthy fats you can feel good about eating.
But the problem here is that the keto diet encourages all fats, including heart-unhealthy fats like saturated fat found in bacon, cream, butter, and mayonnaise. Eating these high-fat foods while on the keto diet help the body get enough energy despite the lack of carbs.
Eating too much bad fat comes at a cost. Getting the bulk of your calories from high-fat animal foods might increase your risk of elevated cholesterol levels, inadequate fiber, and micronutrient deficiencies (hence why the keto diet is considered a last-resort treatment option for severe epilepsy).
3. The Atkins Diet: Make veggies the foundation of your plate.
Despite its reputation as being a meat-centric diet, the creators of the Atkins diet recommend making the foundation of your meal veggies by getting six to eight servings of non-starchy vegetables daily. The Atkins diet only suggests three daily servings of animal protein.
Health experts agree. MyPlate—the food guidelines recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—suggests making half your plate fruits and vegetables, and leaving a quarter of the plate for whole grains and a quarter for protein. Learn more simple guidelines to make your dinner a little healthier.
The problem with the Atkins diet is that it’s a slightly looser variant of the keto diet, meaning it drastically cuts carbs. The standard American diet does tend to go overboard on carbs, but cutting them below 45 to 65 percent of your calorie consumption is not recommended, according to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine.
The moral of the story: Not every guideline in a fad diet is “wrong,” but your long-term health will be better off with a balanced and sustainable way of eating.
Choose MyPlate. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 29, 2018 at https://www.choosemyplate.gov/.)
Dietary fats. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association. (Accessed on August 29, 2018 at http://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/dietary-fats.)
Dietary reference intakes (DRIs): acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges. National Academy of Sciences, 2011. (Accessed on August 29, 2018 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56068/table/summarytables.t5/?report=objectonly.)
Get the facts: sodium’s role in processed food. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017. (Accessed on August 29, 2018 at https://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/sodium_role_processed.pdf.)
Essential nutrients for women while cutting calories. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutriton and Dietetics, 2015. (Accessed on August 29, 2018 at https://www.eatright.org/health/weight-loss/tips-for-weight-loss/essential-nutrients-for-women-while-cutting-calories.)
Forget low-fat and low-sugar, concentrate on a healthy eating pattern. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017. (Accessed on August 29, 2018 at https://www.eatright.org/health/weight-loss/your-health-and-your-weight/forget-low-fat-and-low-sugar-concentrate-on-a-healthy-eating-pattern.)
Martinez Steele E, Popkin BM, Swinburn B, Monteiro CA. The share of ultra-processed foods and the overall nutritional quality of diets in the US: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. Popul Health Metr. 2017 Feb 14;15(1):6.
Processed foods: what’s OK and what to avoid. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016. (Accessed on August 29, 2018 at https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/processed-foods-whats-ok-and-what-to-avoid.)
Should we eat like our caveman ancestors? Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2015. (Accessed on August 29, 2018 at https://www.eatright.org/health/weight-loss/fad-diets/should-we-eat-like-our-caveman-ancestors.)
The facts on fats: 50 years of American Heart Association dietary fats recommendations. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2015. (Accessed on August 29, 2018 at https://www.heart.org/-/media/files/healthy-living/company-collaboration/inap/fats-white-paper-ucm_475005.pdf.)