Drop the Fads: how 'trendy diets' are a waste of time

II  JAN 8 2017

Helena Fordham

We are in the middle of a worldwide obesity epidemic and it’s the start of a new year. Time to shed the fat. The Department of Health recently published worrying statistics stating that 63% of middle aged women and 77% of middle aged men are now overweight (BMI 25-29.9 kg/m2) or obese (BMI ≥30 kg/m2). We know that being obese causes serious health problems, including: cardiovascular disease (stroke and heart disease), type 2 diabetes, some cancers and may exert profound affects upon psychological well-being and quality of life.

With so much focus upon weight and the media constantly bombarding us with images of beautiful, slim celebrities endorsing “miracle” diets, it is not surprising that many of us will opt for fad diets and “quick-fix solutions”. Lets put these diets to the test.

The hCG Diet

The hCG diet claims to “reset” your metabolism resulting in weight loss of up to 1lb a day, all without hunger, weakness, loss of muscle mass or the need to exercise. Daily doses of the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) are taken to “redistribute” the body’s fat stores and energy intake is restricted to 500 kcals daily. However, hCG is not licensed for weight loss.

Additionally, a review of multiple studies examining 8 controlled and 16 uncontrolled trials concluded that many of the studies were of poor quality; that there was no scientific evidence to suggest that hCG is effective for weight loss; and, that any weight loss was almost certainly due to the 500 kcal restriction recommended. Reported side effects include tiredness, irritability and enlarged breast tissue in men. In addition, this regimen is often exceedingly expensive (>£1000 for 30 days), presumably because you are paying for a “natural” hormone.

Detoxes and Cleanses

The term “detox” is a legitimate medical term that has been adopted to sell a concept: that we occasionally need to cleanse the body of toxic substances to facilitate good health. Benefits claimed include: improved digestion/skin/nails/hair; weight loss; improved immunity; higher energy levels; and, improved cellulite. 

Detoxes are generally very prohibitive. An example is the Master Cleanse which involves drinking 6-12 glasses of lemonade daily with added cayenne pepper and maple syrup to detoxify the body and eradicate all manner of disease. Others detox regimens restrict food intake to vegetable and fruit juices whilst others include the use of specific supplements and/or enemas. Typical side effects include feeling hungry, dizziness, headaches and tiredness whilst enemas can cause bloating, nausea, dehydration, cramping and vomiting. Yet, despite there being little evidence for their efficacy, detoxes remain big business.

In fact, the body has various organs (gut, liver, kidneys and skin) that continually “detox” the body. There is no scientific evidence to suggest detox regimens provide any health benefits. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) therefore recommends avoiding diets or supplements that claim to “cleanse” out toxins. A healthy balanced diet and keeping adequately (but not over) hydrated usually suffices.

Clean Eating

Clean eating is advocated by a huge amount of celebrities and has made it on the BDA’s list of celebrity diets to avoid in 2017. It involves eliminating all dietary processed foods and refined sugars, although some of the more radical regimens also specify excluding dairy, grains and gluten. It is always preferable to minimise refined sugars and to cook from scratch whenever possible. However, the BDA states that thinking about food in such restrictive terms can encourage distorted perceptions around food and may lead to Orthorexia Nervosa (an unhealthy obsession with “clean” and “dirty” foods). Additionally, foods such as wholegrains and dairy contain essential nutrients necessary for optimal health. Deficiencies may not cause immediate problems. However, in the long term they will. Therefore, entire food groups should only be excluded if there is a valid medical reason to do so and should always be regularly monitored by a registered health professional.

The Blood Type Diet

The Blood Type diet claims to be world’s most popular tailor-made diet. It is built around the idea that your ABO blood type dictates which foods you should eat for optimal health. Whilst research on ABO has made significant advances recently and we now have a much greater understanding of the importance of ABO in relation to disease risk (for instance type O individuals are at have a reduced risk of heart disease) there is no evidence to suggest that this is due to diet. Indeed, a recent systematic review examined whether adhering to a specific diet could; improve health; and, decrease disease risk, and concluded that no evidence exists to suggest that consuming foods as per your blood type has any benefits.

Diet pills

There are a huge amount of diet pills available online. Unscrupulous vendors claim that their products facilitate weight loss by reducing appetite and/or boosting metabolism. However, these claims are generally unsupported and inadequately regulated. Common ingredients include plants, herbs, fibre, caffeine, green tea and raspberry ketones. Additionally, such products are often marketed as “herbal” thus giving the illusion of them being natural alternatives and therefore free from adverse side effects. However, several studies over recent years have illustrated a positive correlation between the use of diet pills and severe hepatotoxicity (liver damage). The BDA warns against their use and states that diet pills should never be consumed without first consulting a health professional. Not only could you lose money, you may also lose your life.

In conclusion, fad diets will come and go. Safely maintaining a healthy weight takes dedication and unfortunately, there is no quick fix for a long-term issue. Exercising regularly and eating a well-balanced diet that includes sensible portion sizes is recommended. Maintaining a healthy weight has great health benefits but should only be done with the support of a GP or dietitian.

Any opinions above are the author's alone and may not represent those of the NHS or Mind and Medicine. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.

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