Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


March 1999
Fad Diets: Feeding Our Obsession

By Vanessa Alford



In our desperation to be forever beautiful, we often turn to popular diet books for answers. These books are loaded with promises such as permanent fat loss with no hunger, increased energy and physical performance, reversal of disease, and so on. It sounds so good, yet it’s impossible to know whom to believe. Each diet promises the answer, backing up its claims with studies, testimonials, and citations from hundreds of people who’ve allegedly turned their lives around with their program. Let’s look at some of the most popular at the moment.

The Atkins Diet, enshrined in Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, by Robert C. Atkins, M.D., claims, as many diets do, to have helped millions permanently lose weight and turn their lives around. It argues that carbohydrates—not fat intake—are the reason nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight and one-fifth are clinically obese. Unsurprisingly, the Atkins Diet calls for a radical restriction of carbohydrates. Eating fewer carbohydrates and a larger amount of protein causes the body to lose water—something that naturally leads to an almost immediate loss in weight. Because the diet is high in protein you initially feel less hungry and so eat fewer calories. Due to the caloric and carbohydrate restriction, the body uses its store of fat and converts it into energy—thus (at least temporarily) allowing you to lose weight. Atkins’s high protein diet has been criticized for lowering carbohydrate intake to 40 grams a day, which many doctors see as dangerously low. While Atkins does advocate different levels of carbohydrate intake depending on your individual needs, he dismisses those who suggest that putting the body into what some critics call “starvation mode” at the beginning of a diet is dangerous.

The much-hyped Zone Diet of Dr. Barry Sears is similar to Dr. Atkins’s diet. He suggests that we lower our intake of carbohydrates and eat more balanced meals in what he calls “the Zone”— 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat. Both Atkins and Sears specifically blame excessive carbohydrate intake for rapidly increasing insulin levels, sending the body the message to store fat, thereby making it harder to lose. They both back up their claims with numerous studies of and citations from professional athletes and patients with disease and obesity who’ve adhered to their diets and had remarkable results. Both Atkins and Sears say we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that fat is to be avoided at all costs.

Sears’s The Zone has become one of the more popular books among fitness enthusiasts and others hoping to finally find “the answer.” The back jacket of the book warns consumers in block letters that “EATING THESE CARBOHYDRATES COULD BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH,” and goes on to list such “hazardous” foods as carrots, cranberries, bananas, orange juice and lima beans. Oddly enough, The Zone’s ideas are fairly modest. Sears suggests we lower our intake of certain carbohydrates and increase our intake of protein and certain fats (if necessary) to achieve an even ratio at every meal. Sears isn’t advocating a high protein diet—in fact he discourages it—since a diet very low in carbohydrates and very high in protein puts strain on the kidneys and liver and can cause permanent damage.

Some critics argue that diets such as Atkins’s or The Zone are impossible to maintain because they do not provide enough calories, making it hard to maintain initial weight loss due to constant hunger and the body’s craving for carbohydrates. As Dr. Samuel Klibanoff, a Harvard Medical graduate and practicing internist for over 30 years, says: “Your body can only use so much protein, carbohydrate and fat. So, these fad diets are really nonsense, and potentially dangerous. High protein diets can cause damage to the kidneys. Common sense is really the key.”

There are other diets that suggest we should eat fruit alone to achieve its cleansing benefits. This is not good news for those in “the Zone” since Sears believes eating fruit alone will escalate our insulin levels, causing us to become fatter. Some diets advocate eating nothing but fruit before noon, while others suggest starting the day with a high protein, balanced meal because it’s the most important time to eat.... And so it goes on.

What to Do

One thing all diets agree on is the importance of exercise. But don’t necessarily look for nutritional enlightenment in the gym. The gym is a great place to go to get in shape and learn the proper way to do it, but is not necessarily the place to go for answers on diet. Trainers and other fitness enthusiasts often promote the latest diet fads based on hearsay, often without all the facts. So be wary of a personal trainer or fellow gym member who offers advice on diet.

If people were to get all the facts, and apply some of these diet plans conservatively to fit their lifestyles, the diets might work. Unfortunately, many people don’t read the books. They hear they should eat a high-protein diet and think that means binging on bacon and eggs and other unhealthy foods. People may initially even lose weight—as their internal organs struggle to deal with the protein—but this is something the body cannot safely maintain. Ultimately, the body will move into starvation mode, and crave carbohydrates as soon as the weight is lost. Usually the body regains the weight it lost, and even adds a few extra pounds as it stores carbohydrates in case you decide to “starve” yourself again!

So what should you do? The Zone diet is founded on balancing your food intake based on regulating your levels of insulin and other hormones. Sears’s diet also requires an elaborate system of counting out the various amounts of carbohydrate, protein and fat in each meal. Even a snack has to be in “the Zone.” In the early 1970s, Frances Moore Lappé told readers of Diet for a Small Planet that it was necessary to combine certain foods for the correct amount of protein. Not only was this found to be unnecessary, but—as with all these diets—it seems unnecessarily complicated. It can also breed obsession. The Zone has lists of “bad” carbohydrates—many of which (such as brown rice and mangos) are rich in nutrients and vitamins. What message does this control freakery send out to people who may have an unhealthy relationship with food in the first place?

The Pritikin Diet, which claims to be “the world’s most respected diet program,” is probably the one we’re most familiar with—if only because it was the first of all those low-fat diets. It consists of a diet low in fat and high (perhaps too high) in complex carbohydrates. This diet, started by the late Dr. Nathan Pritikin in the early 1980s, is split into 10 percent fat, 10 percent protein, and a whopping 80 percent unrefined and complex carbohydrates (such as fruits, vegetables, and grains). Dr. Pritikin and his son Robert argue that a diet high in fiber and low in fat decreases the risks of heart disease and certain types of cancer. Indeed, Dr. Pritikin claims to have reversed his own heart disease using his diet.

In the nearly 20 years since the Pritikin diet, increasing evidence suggests that eating a diet low in fat, high in fiber, and rich with nutrients from plants and vegetables is healthy. These are the claims of Drs. Dean Ornish and Neal Barnard. Other dietary recommendations, by Terry Shintani and Dr. Michael Klaper, similarly advocate a plant-based diet. If you cut out the dairy and exercise moderately you are not only likely to radically reduce the risks of heart disease and certain cancers, but you will probably lose weight. This loss may well be over a longer period of time than weight-loss under the Atkins or Zone diets, but it will be sustainable, less potentially damaging to your internal organs, and—most importantly—optimal for long term health.

That said, there is simply no miracle cure to melt fat away. You need to use your common sense, and take your specific needs and lifestyle into consideration. Everyone has different nutritional needs. Those of us who work out heavily have different caloric and nutritional requirements than those who are more sedentary. Those with certain health problems should be careful to stay away from certain diets and supplements. My suggestion? Go to a licensed nutritionist or consult a reputable organization for advice. Exercise regularly, and gradually introduce healthier habits as a part of your lifestyle. Anyone can write a book, and as we know, many have conflicting ideas and data. Be careful who you listen to, and get all the facts if you decide to change your eating habits.

Vanessa Alford is Editorial Assistant at Satya and a personal trainer.


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.