November 17, 2009

Fad diets supposedly date back to the 1800s and they'll probably always be in vogue. Dieting is similar to fashion in that it's continuously morphing and even trends that get recycled resurface with a new twist. Every incarnation offers something exciting for consumers to buzz about – sometimes that something is worthwhile, sometimes it's rubbish – but one way or another, fads always contribute to our understanding of what we consider "healthy." I went back five decades to take a look at what we've learned and how each fad has influenced the way we eat.

Decade: 1950s

Diet fad: Grapefruit diet (half grapefruit before every meal; 3 meals a day, no snacks)

Body image icon: Marilyn Monroe

What we learned: Liquids and fiber fill you up! Newer research has confirmed that eating soup, salad and fruit before a meal does help you eat less of your entrée and lower your overall calorie intake.

Downside: This fad was too limiting and too low in calories to stick with long-term and grapefruits get old pretty quick when you're eating them 3 times a day!

Decade: 1960s

Diet fad: Vegetarianism

Body image icon: Twiggy

What we learned: Going veggie, even part-time is one of the best weight loss strategies. A recent review of over 85 studies found that up to 6% of vegetarians are obese, compared with up to 45% of nonvegetarians.

Downside: Some vegetarians don't eat many veggies and instead load up on high calorie dishes like pasta, mac & cheese, pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches. Going veggie is only heart healthy and slimming if it means eating mostly whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts.

Decade: 1970s

Diet fad: Low calorie

Body image icon: Farah Fawcett

What we learned: Tab cola and calorie counting books were all the rage during the disco era and according to every weight loss study ever published, ultimately cutting calories is the bottom line for successful weight loss.

Downside: Too few calories can cause the loss of muscle and suppress immunity and artificial, processed foods aren't healthy just because they're low in calories. For long-term health it's all about getting the right amount of both calories and nutrients.

Decade: 1980s

Diet fad: Low fat

Body image icon: Christie Brinkley

What we learned: Fat packs 9 calories per gram compared to just 4 in protein and carbs, so reducing fat is an effective way to cut excess calories.

Downside: Cutting fat too low reduces satiety so you feel hungry all the time, fat free junk foods like cookies are still loaded with calories and sugar and too little "good" fat from foods like olive oil, avocado and almonds can actually increase your risk for heart disease. We now know it's about having the right kinds and the right amount of fat.

Decade: 1990s

Diet fad: High protein, low carb (Atkins)

Body image icon: Jennifer Anniston

What we learned: Prior to low carb diets, many women weren't getting enough protein because the low fat fad cut out a lot of protein-rich foods. Adding protein back boosted energy and immunity as well as key nutrients like iron and zinc and protein is filling, so it helps shut off hunger, even at a lower calorie level.

Downside: Too much protein and too few carbs can up the risk of heart disease and cancer because you miss out on fiber and the abundant antioxidants in whole grains, fruit and starchy veggies. Bottom line: portion controlled amounts of a balance of protein, carb and fat-rich foods make for the healthiest diet.

Decade: Millennium

Diet fad: All natural

Body image icon: Variety! Icons range from curvy Scarlett Johansson to super slim Angelina Jolie

What we learned: Artificial food additives and preservatives like trans fat have side effects for your waistline, your health and the environment. Now the accent is on "clean eating" with an emphasis on all natural, local and "green" (planet friendly) foods and there's no one-size-fits-all for weight loss or body image.

Downside: The calorie message has gotten a little lost in the shuffle. Clean eating is best, but today, over one third of adults in the US are obese so an all natural, balanced, calorie controlled diet is best for maximizing this trend.

P.S. Apparently in the mid-1970s, it was reported that Elvis Presley tried the "Sleeping Beauty Diet" in which he was heavily sedated for several days, hoping to wake up thinner – I think the lesson there is obvious!

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