Regardless of their flavors and recipes, all fad diet programs package hope into books, pill bottles, and neatly-printed meal plans. Weight loss is a $66 billion industry in the United States, and its companies know how to spin inspiration into leads. Their marketing materials are chock-full of enrollee testimonials that all seem to express the same cheerful note in different sentences: “This diet plan brought me to my target weight! I’m happier, healthier, and living the life I want to live.” Stories like these are thrilling – and inspiring. They make people want to embark on a weight loss journey; helpfully, one is clearly laid out for them in the marketing materials.


But are these hyped-up diet plans really all they are cracked up to be? Will they truly help users lose weight – and keep it off once it’s gone?


I’m a little hesitant to drink the sugar-free Kool-Aid.


My problem with diet programs isn’t that I think they don’t work. I’m sure that some of them do, at least for a little while. Otherwise, how would they maintain their popularity? No, my concern is that these nutritional fads are short-term measures that can do long-term harm to a person’s physical health and sense of self-esteem. Instead of arranging their diets to meet health restrictions or personal preferences, those who embark on diet plans often want to lose weight at any cost – and this is where the mental health risks lie.


Let me clarify: there’s nothing wrong with taking steps to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle. But oftentimes, these diets offer “quick-fix” solutions that promise shocking weight loss results in just a few weeks or months by imposing an intense diet and exercise regimen. However, once dieters achieve their short-term goals to drop the weight, they don’t know how to keep it off – and unfortunately, weight gain is a common occurrence for former dieters. One study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) followed up with former contestants from NBC’s hit reality show The Biggest Loser and found that in the six years since they were on the show, participants had regained over 60% of the weight they had lost. Four out of the 14 studied contestants were heavier than when they started. They aren’t alone; NIH weight gain researcher Kevin Hall estimates that over 80% of obese dieters who lose weight gain it back within a matter of years.


Needless to say, regaining weight after a diet can be demoralizing. Even though metabolism and weight loss aren’t factors that can be influenced by willpower alone, we’re socialized to believe that they are. American culture is dangerously obsessed with thinness and fitness; an obsession with dieting and the scale can ultimately lead to eating disorders and cause worryingly low self-esteem. One 2017 study even found that those who internalize society’s stigma against weight gain have a more difficult time keeping the weight loss off. Ironically, the very frustration and negative body image that pushes people to diet may be what keeps them from achieving their body image goals. According to Hall, those who lose startling amounts of weight in a short period of time often experience a metabolism slowdown – a biological process – that makes it hard to lose or even maintain weight. Keeping the weight off after a short-term diet is a nearly impossible task – but dieters still blame themselves for what they perceive to be a failure.


And that’s the crux of the problem. The body image goals and methods for achieving them fad dieters follow aren’t healthy. You might be able to lose twenty or even fifty pounds in a few months by following a crash diet plan, but you won’t stay at that weight if you don’t implement a plan for long-term health and fitness. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about how you can establish and follow a healthy lifestyle plan! It may take longer to see results, but you’ll find yourself healthier and happier for your efforts.