Sense About Science: Fad Diets

Ask for EvidenceDiets on the internet: You might as well make them up.

Sense about Science have a new (ish, I’m a bit slow off the mark on this one!) campaign focus – exposing the claims behind fad diets.

Many societies currently have a problem with nutrition. In places where food is abundant, or supermarkets and fast food chains present the main family options, a lot of people are overeating and eating badly. Poverty doesn’t help, and when you already have little money, companies duping people with claims of superhealthy items and food plans are extremely unethical.

The NHS resources are, in my view, the best place to go for a start. To learn about calories, going about losing weight, “hidden” weight-gain causes, asking a GP about getting and keeping a healthy weight and more – really many of these things should be in schools, so equipping people with skills that will last a lifetime and help them to keep healthy, combating challenges such as lack of support at home when children are growing up.

Unfortunately, a combination of culture generally, celebrity following, personal challenges and insufficient regulation of food suppliers often leads to people who are frustrated and find it difficult to keep healthy and happy. Where there are vulnerable people with problems, there are quacks ready to take advantage and make money from them.

Dodgy dieting

Contradictory diet advice is everywhere – Katy Perry’s acupunctured fish, Matthew McConaughey and the caveman diet, Gwyneth Paltrow’s macrobiotic meals. It seems celebrities feel obliged to offer their opinions on what we should eat, leaving sound diet advice lost in bogus claims.

Frustrated by fad diets, today young scientists are calling on everyone to Ask for Evidence behind diets. To highlight why this is so important they are challenging people to spot completely made up diets in an online quiz. It’s not as easy as you might think. The researchers also looked at the evidence behind 10 diets and came to the conclusion that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

To help people sort the beneficial from the bogus when they come across diet claims in the future, the researchers have 4 things to look out for:

Eat less, eat better, move more – it works. Via National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia Commons.

Immune boosting. You can’t and you don’t need to. If your immune system wasn’t working properly, you would be very ill and you’d be needing serious treatment. If it works, it works.

Detox. It’s a marketing myth – our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets. You’d only need some medical detox intervention if your liver and/or kidneys weren’t working properly. Again, in that case you’d be very ill. If you feel bad about drinking too much and eating crap, just do less of that. Don’t buy pointless, useless, overpriced products branded with this nonsense word.

Superfood. There is no such thing, just foods that are high in some nutrients. Just eat a balanced diet; as per the NHS link, and you don’t need vitamin supplements or super-anything food. Just enough food, generally.

Cleansing. You shouldn’t be trying to cleanse anything other than your skin or hair.


Further comment on the absurdity and dangers of fad diets:

“Never mind about being tempted by that slice of cake – don’t be tempted by fad diets. When you see extraordinary claims, always ask for evidence.”

Leah Fitzsimmons, Biochemist and VoYS member

“Personal diets and nutritional health more broadly, are very complex areas. Many people latch on to particular diets through just word of mouth or from articles in the popular press. Unfortunately the impact of some these diets can be, at best, ineffective and, at worst very unhealthy. For this reason, it’s important to have sound food and nutritional science underpinning any diet choice. It is also important that this is soundly but simply communicated.”

Jon Poole, Chief Executive, Institute of Food Science and Technology

“Let’s be realistic about fad diets – they don’t work. They don’t accelerate weight loss because they’re not sustainable long term. If you plan to lose weight you need to recognise you’re committing to a marathon, not a sprint. They don’t improve your health, nor act as a talisman to protect you against cancer, Alzheimer’s, or whatever health risk is the media focus du jour. Fad diet promoters never let sound nutrition get in the way of persuasive marketing to the public, but rely on the publics’ lack of knowledge on diet and health to promote their dietary myths and generate financial profit.”

Catherine Collins, British Dietetic Association

“New diets are being made up at an alarming rate. If you are concerned about your weight, look for evidence based advice”

Dr Ellie Cannon, GP and author

“Hundreds of researchers in the VoYS network are involved in tackling public misinformation about science and health. They make great efforts alongside their research work, and have had a lot of fun tackling dodgy diets. They’ve shown just how hard it can be to sort the beneficial from the bogus – unless you ask for evidence.”

Victoria Murphy, VoYS Co-ordinator

VOYS Daft Diets Quiz

VoYS members launched a document and webpage published by Sense About Science to draw the public’s attention to the stream of silly diets which drown out sensible advice. It’s hard to spot the spoofs – try the quiz!

The VoYS diet project is brought to you by Agnieszka Piotrowska, Alison Clark, Anusha Seneviratne, Charlotte Dunbar, Chris Creese, Claire Marriott, Daisy Hessenberger, Elizabeth Glennon, Erika Nitsch, Fergus Guppy, Grace Gottlieb, Helen Coulshed, Kate Waller, Kristian Le Vay, Leah Fitzsimmons, Lizzie Tilley, Lucy Hagger, Madeline Burke, Rob Hagan and Tanya Hart.


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