Quick weight loss, diabetes and cancer cure: the unseemly promises of fad diets

Manoj Pandey*

Fad diets promise the moon, but do they deliver?

On WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms, we keep getting text messages and videos on how certain plants, especially the aromatic and exotic type, can do wonders to our health. With clickbait headlines, they force us to read or watch the post. Many of us tend to believe these, and we not only use them as advised, but also spread the posts to our near and dear ones.

While some of the social media messages on wonder foods/ diets could be evidence-based and useful, most others are sheer misinformation. 

Misinformation on health is among the most widespread forms of wrong information on the web, and it goes on unchecked. Only some cases of outright harmful information and quackery are booked, that too when they lead to serious injuries and deaths.

On the other hand, a fraud on the society has been going on for ages legally, with governmental consent, social approval and celebrity endorsement. And ironically, it is being committed often with the stamp of scientific research. 

I hope you guessed it. No? It is the crass promotion of food supplements and medicines that either do not do the promised good or end up harming people. The least harm they do is make people spend their money on a useless product.

We can have a separate discussion on this aspect (of unethical practices by food and wellness companies). For the present, let us focus on foods that are promoted as magic cures for various ailments or as diets that do wonders to the body.  

Most food fads are created by researchers, quacks and companies. Whosoever does it succeeds in convincing a large number of people to follow him/ her. So, in most cases, what is served is a promise, not a really healthsome stuff.

You read that right; food fads are created by researchers more than others, because they have the authority and necessary skills to persuade people about their findings. 

A fad diet often starts with a discovery (by an enterprising researcher/ practising doctor) that looks to give cure to a nagging health issue.  The shrewd inventor of such a diet is master of the art of making people believe him. Some of his tools are to stretch arguments to the limit when people give up resistance against it, use whatever could serve as ‘evidence’ in his support, and get celebrity endorsements. No wonder, some fad foods achieve a cult status. 

These fads can also draw from the notions that are part of the folklore. Religious beliefs, supported by scriptures, can also be used. Examples of someone who lived long and was supposed to be taking a particular food are carefully studied and then exploited. Such fads are often the creation of enterprising YouTubers, Instagrammers and TikTokers.

History and social media are full of deliberate food fads. Let me name just a few.

Edward Hooker Dewey is known for a no-breakfast regimen, which became very popular in the US a century back. Look, how convincingly he tries to manipulate opinion in favour of his discovery and against the mainstream medicinal system, in the preface of his book, No Breakfast Plan and the Fasting-Cure, published in 1900: 

“This volume is a history, or a story, of an evolution in the professional care of the sick. It begins in inexperience and in a haze of medical superstition, and ends with a faith that Nature is the all in all in the cure of disease. The hygiene unfolded is both original and revolutionary: its practicality is of the largest, and its physiology beyond any possible question. The reader is assured in advance that every line of this volume has been written with conviction at white heat, that enforced food in sickness and the drug that corrodes are professional barbarisms unworthy of the times in which we live.”

By today’s standards of pacy ad-copy, this might appear boring, but in those days the language was long-winding and people had a great faith in what was written in a book.

With his degrees and endorsement by naturalists and priests, he convinced a whole generation that not eating breakfast, and being on fast for a long period, was the best cure against most diseases. 

A cult figure who promoted foods with a focus on just one biochemical is worth mentioning.  During the early part of the twentieth century, Alexander Haig, a practising doctor, proposed that uric acid was the key molecule that decided various functions in the human body. Some foods were categorised as promoting uric acid and some that reduced this chemical. In total, the quantity of uric acid present in urine was taken as a measure of health. 

You will agree that while association of uric acid with certain diseases may have a scientific basis (it does have), too much reliance on one parameter and building fallacious arguments around it cannot be justified. I can name a few other fads that anoint one food/ liquid a wonder food capable of solving numerous health problems: apple cider vinegar, cabbage soup, vitamin C, and water (consuming excess water irrespective of thirst).

When vitamins were discovered, they were dubbed as wonder cure for all diseases. Many human generations have been feeding on multi-vitamin pills and supplements. People obsessed with vitamins are seen consuming certain foods ignoring other foods. On YouTube, numerous videos keep floating in which one vitamin is picked up, and real and imaginary symptoms due to deficiency of that vitamin are given to hook gullible viewers into believing that their (common) ailments are due to that reason. It is also a well-known fact that an enormous quantity of vitamins and vitamin-supplements are prescribed by doctors. To keep focus on food fads, in the present article I am not going deep into the issue of medical fads spread by big pharma and practising doctors. Maybe, we will discuss that sometime later. 

In India, many fads are created and spread in the name of Ayurveda and naturopathy. You are advised to drink juices of lauki (bottle gourd) and karela (bitter gourd) to make your blood alkaline – this and many such foods and medicines have been vigorously promoted by some yoga teachers, naturalists and Ayurvedic drug companies. A video of a juice-seller in a city in Punjab is doing rounds these days, in which the seller claims that he has cured hundreds of people of terminal diseases by juices made out of lauki, karela, cucumber, spinach, pumpkin, etc. He mixes these ingredients in a certain proportion for curing cancer, in a different proportion for curing diabetes, and so on. Long queues can be seen in front of his stall, and many of his regular clients swear that they have been treated by his juices! 

I am not rejecting the healing properties of some vegetables, fruits, spices, herbs and other edible plant products, but am only highlighting how they become a fad – and people consume them in excess or when not required or when they can really harm rather than heal. 

To drive my point home, let me discuss in slight detail a few prominent present-day fad diets.

Weight-loss diets

Numerous small and big firms are making millions of dollars every year by exploiting the weakness of people to stay slim. Besides exercises of all kinds, food combinations and food-advice are served with highly exaggerated claims. 

Let me give one example – Atkins Diet, which also goes with the generic name, low-carb diet. This is one of the longest fads known to us, and has been followed by billions across the globe. Atkins’ book, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, has sold 12 million copies and has been on bestsellers lists for many years. 

This diet shuns carbohydrates of all types. This is claimed to be the golden formula to stay thin and healthy. So, the diet contains a lot of animal proteins and fats, but no carbohydrates such as starch and sugar. 

Obesity is prevalent in rich societies, and weight loss is one of the biggest health goals among the health-conscious. No wonder, low-carb diet promoted by Atkins became popular immediately after he published his book in 1972 and remained so for the three decades leading to early 2000s. 

The underlying ‘scientific’ basis for this diet is that high protein consumption leads to a healthy body, and taking saturated fats for energy does not result in calorie-gains because fat takes a lot of energy to digest it. This, it is argued, gives the body a ‘metabolic advantage’, leading to weight loss. 

For the promotion of this diet, Atkins quoted a small piece of research from the World War II era, and padded it up with his own experiments, which were too small and unscientific to have any real basis. He created a business empire by selling his own products, which he called ‘a high calorie way to stay thin forever’. Now there are many other competing diets and Atkins is no more; so the popularity of Atkins’ diet has waned, but the fad of low-carb diet persists.

Another highly popular low-carb diet, touted as effective in weight-loss, is ketogenic diet. The name comes from a type of molecules (ketone bodies) formed in the liver when it burns fat, more so when glucose (from carbohydrates) is not available. 

One of the hypotheses to promote a ketogenic diet, somewhat like that given in the case of Atkins’ diet, is that carbohydrates raise blood insulin and induce storage of fat in the body, while eating fats does the opposite. 

The reality is that while excess consumption of carbohydrates may not be good for diabetic patients (that too depends on many factors), substituting them with fats disturbs the metabolism more than correct it. Many studies conducted in recent years have found that limiting carbohydrates drastically in diet does not result in a permanent weight-loss. 

Low-carb diets have been found to cause many diseases due to low availability of energy, and excessive consumption of meat and fat. It can sometimes result in ketoacidosis, or blood turning acidic due to ketones, which is a life-threatening health condition. In 2018, the British Dietetic Association called ketogenic diet as one of the ‘top five worst celeb diets to avoid’.

The ketogenic diet had a therapeutic origin. Such a diet was developed in the 1920s for treating epilepsy because it was observed that eating low levels of carbohydrates reduced epileptic seizures in a significant number of patients. This is still sometimes used, in addition to mainstream treatment of epilepsy. But its use as a sustainable weight-loss diet is purely a fad that has sustained itself over decades.

The Paleolithic or Paleo diet

Paleolithic (or palaeolithic) is the early part of stone age of human evolution.

The paleolithic diet tries to mimic the diet taken by the humans before they learnt to grow food and process it. So, it avoids processed meat, dairy products, sugar, salt, alcohol and, of course, highly processed and junk food.

This concept of adopting food habits of ancient ancestors started with the notion that stone-age hunter-gatherer humans were flesh eaters, and that humans are genetically programmed for such food in pre-agriculture days. 

The logic of natural food being healthier than highly-processed modern food is valid, but the benefits of the paleo diet are highly exaggerated. Taking such a diet for a long time is likely to produce nutritional deficiencies. In addition, such a diet does not suit a large number of people whose bowels have got used to cooked, varied, flavoured, food. 

It is no surprise that the appeal of going back to nature in the face of modern lifestyle and diet-related ailments is being exploited to the hilt. The global paleo food market is estimated to be more than $10 billion!

Some other fad diets 

A number of other fad diets are popular, such as:

a. Alkaline diet: a diet that is supposed to cause alkalinity in the human body.

The series of logic given in support of alkaline diet are that various foods cause different levels of acidity or alkalinity, and that foods that cause alkalinity are good for the body because many metabolic diseases are caused when the blood turns acidic due to bad foods, toxins and biological processes. This notion also draws strength from the fact that blood is slightly alkaline in nature. 

The proponents of such diets have spread a number of myths and have promoted fallacies around scientific facts, e.g. cancer cells need acidity in the blood for their propagation; urine turns alkaline when more fruits and vegetables are consumed, and that is a proof how the alkalinity caused by these natural products leads to good health; and to keep alkalinity in the body, one should avoid animal products, sugar, white flour and caffeine. 

It is a fact that some of the foods that are supposed to be good from acid-alkaline hypothesis are good for the body, but there is hardly any scientific truth in that alkalinity is the basic reason behind the goodness of these foods. Besides, taking only one type of food and avoiding others altogether can lead to nutritional deficiencies and imbalance. 

b. Detox diet: This is a diet plan rather than individual foods, and often involves taking little or no food, consuming a lot of water and fruit/ vegetable juices, and inducing excretion. 

The idea behind detox diets is that body keeps producing toxins, and toxins also enter body through contamination and pollution. So, it needs to be cleaned periodically, so that the toxins do not affect organs. 

The detox regimen of big hospitals and wellness centres, thus, revolves around convincing people that their chronic diseases and even general feeling of pain and fatigue are due to accumulation of toxins in their bodies.  It was revealed in a recent UK study that detox plans offered by some well-known wellness companies consisted mainly of normal cleaning, with some weird cleansing practices and foods added for effect. 

Giving the digestive system some rest now and then can be good, especially for those living a modern lifestyle full of parties, alcohol, junk food and occasional binge-eating. Similarly, better hygienic practices help fight against diseases. However, regular use of detox diet regimen can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Regular fast or taking only water for a long period can lead to life-threatening issues for some individuals. Enema and forced vomiting can also be harmful if not done under supervision and only when required.

c. Vegan diet: a diet that includes only vegetarian food, shunning all animal foods (dairy, poultry and animal products) altogether.

Along with vegetarianism, which allows use of dairy products, veganism gets wide support from different faiths, naturalists, and activists against cruelty towards animals. So, proponents of such a diet claim significant biological and spiritual gains from it. 

Like paleo diet, veganism is more of a fad than a fulsome, balanced diet. If made a life-long diet plan, it has the potential to cause nutritional deficiencies, especially among pregnant and lactating mothers, and patients.

d. Just one more example, the DIP diet.

Invented by Biswaroop Roy Choudhury, this diet plan demands taking only fruits and salads in the breakfast followed by good quantities of these foods in lunch and dinner. 

The idea behind this diet is that milk and other dairy products and all types of meat are not suited for humans. Therefore, consumption of animal products, alcohol and processed food is the primary reason behind most metabolic diseases. Conversely, going back to plant diet in natural (uncooked) form not only leads to overall good health but also reverses many chronic diseases. 

Roy Choudhury claims that he has treated lakhs of patients suffering from chronic ailments just by administering the DIP diet.

Asking people to consume fresh fruits and vegetables is perhaps one of the best dietary advices. However, asking people to shun all animal products, and claiming that the DIP diet can cure people of hypertension, diabetes and high levels of cholesterol within 72 hours is what makes it a fad diet. 

Tailpiece

If you want to look modern, not a stone-age guy, you should throw into discussion paleo diet. Do it especially when you are binging on food in a party!

If you are still guessing what this abbreviation DIP means in DIP diet, it’s time to doubt your intelligence, because it is ‘Disciplined & Intelligent Person’s Diet’!

Further reading

Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.