Weight loss can feel ex-cru-ci-at-ing-ly slow. Even if you’re doing everything “right,” the fastest you can safely lose weight is right around one to two pounds per week, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. More often than not, the scale moves even more sluggish than that—something that can test even the most patient of people. Enter the fad diet from stage right.
“Fad diets tend to gain popularity due to promises of quick weight loss and unrealistic results,” says Mary Manning, RDN. “But they’re often grounded in little to no science. While the claims can be appealing, these diets are often not sustainable long term because of how restrictive they are.” Can fad diets and their ultra-low-calorie intake help you lose weight at first? Yep. But will it stay off? Probably not, with studies showing most people gain back the majority of what they’ve lost once they stop following the super strict rules of the diet. “This can lead to trying another diet, then gaining that weight back, and on and on,” says Manning. “It can be a vicious cycle often referred to as yo-yo dieting.” Not only is this a frustrating way to go through life, it can also possibly raise your risk for heart issues.
So, how do you know if you’ve landed on a fad diet? They tend to have a gimmick (red flag!), require you ban entire food groups (red flag!), tout a catchy name (red flag!), or promote questionable food rules (red flags). They also often provide a one-size-fits-all list of recommendations for every single person to follow (red flag!) “How can you put everyone into the same pot? You can’t. Everyone is so different,” explains Rebecca Goodrich, RDN, of RAD Nutrition. Research shows that a much way better strategy for weight loss is finding an eating approach you can stick with for the long haul—one that doesn’t cut out food groups or force you to feel hungry all day long.
With that in mind, keep reading for nine of the most ridiculous fad diets around—some silly, others downright dangerous—and why they won’t get you any closer to your goals.
Baby Food Diet
Pureed prunes, anyone? For this diet, you replace several meals and snacks with baby food for a few days to drop weight really fast. Because baby food jars and pouches are much smaller portions than what adults eat, they are way lower in calories than your typical meals and snacks. But baby food is best left to babies. “Our dietary needs as adults are very different from toddlers and babies,” says Goodrich. “This diet definitely decreases the intake of essential nutrients, which can then lead to deficiencies,” explains Goodrich. “You aren’t meeting your caloric needs or your micronutrient needs, which are your vitamins and minerals.”
The alkaline diet, also referred to as the acid-alkaline diet and alkaline ash diet, was popularized in the early 2000s by the book The pH Miracle: Balance Your Diet, Reclaim Your Health. The premise: Your diet can control how acidic your blood is, and keeping the acidity level in the right range can help reduce damage to the body, aid in disease prevention, and—the key promise—promote weight loss. Followers are instructed to consume “alkaline-promoting” foods, such as fresh fruits and veggies, and avoid foods thought to produce acid in the body (including—deep breath here—meat, fish, dairy, eggs, most grains, caffeine, and processed foods). While it’s never a bad idea to eat more fruit and vegetables, there’s no research showing pH affects weight. “There really isn’t evidence to support it,” registered dietitian Sandie Hunter, manager of clinical nutrition at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois explained to WW. “[The alkaline diet] may promote weight loss because it’s restrictive, not because of the alkaline theory.”
Cotton Ball Diet
This unbelievable-sounding fad diet has you eat cotton balls soaked in juices or smoothies to suppress hunger and restrict calories. Consider the eyebrow-raising words “eat cotton balls.” It’s not just unhealthy, it’s dangerous in all caps. From causing potential blockages in your digestive tract to depriving your body of essential nutrients, the bottom line is that cotton balls should stay in the bathroom, not the kitchen.
With a tagline of “eat cookies and lose weight,” this diet sounds like it’s going to be a blast. But it’s not referring to just any cookie and it requires a lot of meal skipping. You forgo your typical breakfast and lunch and instead eat one of Dr. Sanford Siegal’s specialty cookies every two hours. (Oh, and get out your wallet: you have to buy the cookies from his website.) End with dinner that fits the plan’s rules and you’ll find yourself only consuming 1000 to 1200 calories per day. Sound restrictive? That’s because it is. “One thousand calories a day are too low—for almost everyone,” says Goodrich. “I would never put anyone on such a low-calorie meal plan.”
Cabbage Soup Diet
Followers of this plan consume bowl after bowl of home-cooked cabbage soup for seven days, plus a few other foods such as fruit or baked potatoes. The promise: fast, dramatic weight loss. The problem? Once again, it’s highly restrictive. “Cabbage is extremely low in calories and cannot possibly provide enough energy to sustain you throughout the day,” says Manning. “A diet of purely cabbage soup would not provide any fat and little to no protein.” And you might not feel all that good, since consuming an excess of cruciferous vegetables, like cabbage, can bring on gas and bloating—i.e. the cabbage itself won’t be the only unpleasant odour in your home.
Ear Stapling Diet
For the uninitiated, ear stapling is often described as being similar to acupuncture—it involves visiting special practitioners who insert a surgical staple in the ear’s inner cartilage. Fans of this diet claim that the staple will stimulate portions of the ear thought to decrease your appetite and target weight loss. Chalk this up under: Sounds too good (and too painful) to be true. A case report notes that this practice lacks strong evidence that it works, probably because it doesn’t come with any actual suggestions on what healthy nutrition habits to follow.
HCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin, is a hormone produced during pregnancy. To follow this diet, you’ll consume HCG-containing products, such as drops or sprays, while only eating roughly 500 calories a day. That’s something experts are horrified by. The American Heart Association Task Force notes that “very-low-calorie diets (defined as less than 800 calories a day) should be used only in limited circumstances in medical care settings where medical supervision and a high-intensity lifestyle intervention can be provided.” Described as reckless and dangerous, the FDA took the bold step of advising against this diet plan. While HCG consumption has been approved for use by health care providers to treat infertility in women, there has been no evidence supporting weight-loss claims. In other words: hard pass.
Boiled Egg Diet
This diet focuses on—you guessed it—hard-boiled eggs paired with non-starchy vegetables and low-carb fruits. And that’s pretty much all you can eat. While eggs are a good source of protein and are often included as part of a healthy diet, eating mainly eggs and eliminating other food groups is taking things a bit too far. “Low-carbohydrate diets like this can be appealing, but carbohydrates are our body’s and brain’s preferred source of energy,” explains Manning. This is a good reminder that if an eating plan promises fast weight loss by eliminating entire food groups, be cautious. Overly restrictive approaches are unlikely to be sustainable in the long run, notes Manning.
Of all the fad diets, this is probably the one that’s come closest to going mainstream. Chances are you know someone who’s decided to “reset their metabolism” or “detox their body” with a juice cleanse. The idea is that by replacing one or all of your meals with juices, you can remove toxins, improve digestion, and balance bacteria in the gut. But it’s all hype. “There is little to no clinical evidence that juice cleanses—or any detox diet, for that matter—actually benefit the body,” Alicia Romano, RD, a clinical registered dietitian at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center has explained. A 2017 review published in Current Gastroenterology Reports notes that any weight loss observed during juice cleanses will likely be regained. Because, once again, low-calorie intakes aren’t sustainable in the long run. Plus, by skipping whole foods, juice cleansing is often deficient in essential nutrients that are part of a balanced diet. Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, explains that many juice cleanses deprive the body of a key ingredient needed for healthy digestion: fibre. During the standard juicing process, the edible pulp of fruits and veggies gets discarded—and with it, most of the roughage that promotes regularity.
So, What Diet Works Best?
When you decide you want to lose weight, going about it in a healthy way will help you avoid the weight loss/regain cycle—not to mention the feelings of deprivation. Often, it’s not a “diet” at all—it’s a way of life that feels do-able and sustainable. Long-term weight loss comes from developing healthy habits that can be practiced for more than just a few days, Manning adds.
Try practicing these seven science-backed habits, including eating a variety of whole foods packed with nutrients, tracking what you eat, and having a slow-and-steady mindset. It’s also important to add other feel-good practices into your daily life, including reducing stress, getting enough sleep, and moving more. Lastly, be kind to yourself! Positive self-talk and self-compassion have been shown to help aid in weight management.
At the end of the day, focusing on the foods and behaviours that add to your overall wellbeing instead of fad diets hell-bent on subtracting— essential calories, whole food groups, any morsel of pleasure, etc.—will make you feel better, inside and out, regardless of what the scale says. And that’s a big win.