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Fad Diet or Healthy Nutrition? Diet Gurus Weigh In


Worrying about our weight has become a national obsession. Americans – a majority of whom are either overweight or obese, according to government studies– spend an astonishing $30 billion a year on weight loss plans and products.

Some popular recent diets, such as the Atkins plan and the Zone diet, call on people to eat high amounts of fat and protein, or determine what kind of foods they should eat based on their personal blood types.

Clearly, there is a need for Americans to slim down and become more fit. But critics say that many of these fad diets may cause more health problems than they solve. Is it really a good idea to eat high-fat foods if we’re trying to lose weight? Or is it just a gimmick that panders to people’s desires to eat fattening foods?

On the other side of the issue are such luminaries as Dean Ornish, M.D., John McDougall, M.D., and John Robbins, author of “Diet for a New America.” They call on people to sharply cut back on their fat consumption, and eat more grains, fruits, and vegetables. Many leading health organizations also warn against following high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets.


Kathleen Putnam, a nutritionist with NutritionWorks in Seattle, says she and partner Sandi Britton have many clients who ask about popular diets such as the Atkins high-protein, low-carbohydrate plan.

“Many clients,” she says, “want to know why there are so many contradictions in the different meal plans, such as high carbohydrate vs. high protein, and they want to know, what is the ‘truth.’ Others want to know why a particular ‘diet’ worked for a while or why they remember it working before they became older.”

“Most fad diets have a shred of truth to them,” she adds. “Americans eat too much animal protein so the high carbohydrate diets work well to cut calories, saturated fats, and cholesterol, and that helps with our major chronic illnesses in the U.S. Americans are eating too much sugar and refined carbo-hydrates and so adding some protein helps with energy, mood, and blood sugar stabilization. However, a diet of whole foods based on plant foods is the key to good nutrition. Research and personal practice shows time and time again that we are leaner, healthier and have less disease when our food choices evolve around whole plant foods.”

The National Institute of Health (NIH) says that 54 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. And obesity is implicated in a number of potentially life-threatening health problems. According to the NIH, obesity and being overweight are known risk factors for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis and some forms of cancer (uterine, breast, colorectal kidney, and gallbladder). Additionally, obesity is linked with psychological disorders such as depression, high blood cholesterol, pregnancy complications and menstrual irregularities.

Why then do some of the most popular fad diets entice Americans to eat mostly high-fat foods?

Atkins diet: High Fat, Low Carbs

Perhaps the most popular of the fad diets is Dr. Robert Atkins’ plan. He’s sold more than 6 million copies of his book, “Dr. Robert Atkins’ New Diet Revolution.” And he says people can eat cheeseburgers when they’re hungry, and eat rich foods on “your path to weight-loss.”

Atkins says that limiting carbo-hydrates allows the body to burn stored fat. The Atkins diet, first introduced in the 1970s, is a high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate plan that forces the body into a fasting state called ketosis, which can lead to rapid weight loss. In the first two weeks of the diet, people are supposed to eat only pure proteins, such as meat, fish, poultry and eggs, and pure fats such as butter and olive oil. Fruits, grains, breads and starchy vegetables are not allowed.

“This is the classic profile of a fad diet scam,” writes John Robbins, founder of EarthSave, in his book, “The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and the World.” “Promise people they can eat whatever they want, tell them this is a new and amazing revolution, promise them that it won’t take any effort, tell them the results will be nearly instantaneous, and make sure they think that everybody else is doing it.”

“Who could resist such hype?”

“People do often lose weight on the Atkins diet,” Robbins adds, “at least for a while. But they do so at great cost to themselves and to their long-term health.” One area where Robbins says Atkins is right is in cutting back on “white” carbohydrate foods – such as white flour, white bread and white sugar. These foods have little nutritional value and squeeze more healthful foods of a person’s diet, Robbins says. But people shouldn’t remove high-carbohydrate foods from their diet altogether, he says. People can benefit significantly by adding high-carbohydrate whole grains to their diets. Studies have consistently shown that whole grains reduce the risk of cancer.

James Anderson, M.D., professor of medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine, told CBS Healthwatch that the Atkins diet is absolutely the worst diet you could imagine for long-term obesity, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.

“If you wanted to find one diet to ruin your health, you couldn’t find one worse than Atkins. We have 18 million diabetics in this country and 50 million people with high blood pressure. They can have kidney problems, and high protein intake will bring them on faster. The diet is thrombogenic, meaning the fat will tend to form lipid particles in your blood after meals, which could lead to blood clots, meaning heart attack or stroke.”

“We worry about this, because many of the people who love these diets are men aged 40 to 50, who like their meat. They may be five years from their first heart attack. This couldn’t be worse for them.”

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is likewise critical of the Atkins plan and other high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets. “By omitting certain foods, and sometimes even entire food groups, these diets are deficient in such major nutrients as dietary fiber and carbohydrates, as well as in selected vitamins, minerals and protective phytochemicals, the group says.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has also weighed in, publishing a position paper against high protein diets. According to the AHA, “High-protein diets may be associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease. When diets high in protein are severely limited in carbohydrates, food choices become restrictive and overall nutrient adequacy and long-term palatability are also of concern….Over the long term, diet should be consistent with a balanced eating plan that supports weight maintenance and lowers chronic disease risk.”

Dr. Ornish, the low-fat guru who recommends consuming less than 10 percent of your calories from fat, has debated endlessly with proponents of high-fat diet fads. “I’d love to tell people that eating pork rinds and bacon and sausage is a healthy way to lose weight, but it isn’t,” he says. “There are lots of ways to lose weight. You could go on chemotherapy and lose weight, but I don’t recommend it as the optimal way.”

“When you go on a healthy diet, a diet like I recommend, that’s predominantly fruits and vegetables and grains and beans in their natural forms, you can lose even more weight. You can actually keep it off, which no one has ever shown on an Atkins kind of diet. And instead of mortgaging your health in the process, you’re actually enhancing your health.”

“Meat,” he adds, “is high in disease-causing substances like saturated fat, cholesterol, oxidants, and it’s low in the ones that are protective, whereas when you eat fruits and vegetables and grains and beans you’re not only avoiding the substances that promote disease, you’re getting thousands of others that have anti-cancer, anti-aging and anti-heart disease properties.”

Enter the Zone: Sears, McDougall clash over nutrition

Barry Sears, M.D., launched another dietary phenomenon in 1995 when his book, “Enter the Zone,” was published. His diet is not nearly as restrictive as the Atkins plan, but critics say it still has many flaws.

Sears describes his Zone diet as a “life-long hormonal control strategy,” and says the diet is geared toward keeping the hormone insulin in a tight zone – not too high, and not too low. “Once you begin to think hormonally about food instead of calorically,” he writes, “you begin to realize that many of the dietary recommendations made by the U.S. government and leading nutritional experts are simply dead wrong.”

Moreover, Sears says, it is impossible for dietary fat alone to make you fat. “It is excessive levels of the hormone insulin that makes you fat and keeps you fat,” he says. “How do you increase insulin levels? By eating too many fat-free carbohydrates or too many calories at any one meal. Americans do both.”

“People tend to forget that the best way to fatten cattle is to raise their insulin levels by feeding them excessive amounts of low-fat grain. The best way to fatten humans is to raise their insulin levels by feeding them excessive amounts of low-fat grain, but now in the form of pasta and bagels.” John McDougall, M.D., who recommends getting fat intake down to as low as five percent of your diet, has debates Sears several times about the Zone diet. McDougall says the Zone is nothing more than a semi-starvation diet, and as such, is impossible to follow for any length of time. Moreover, the numbers simply don’t add up.

“Barry Sears weighs 210 pounds and is 6’5" according to information from his book,” McDougall says. “His diet is based on 30 percent of the calories from protein, 30 percent fat, and 40 percent carbohydrate. He says he eats 100 grams of protein a day. He has been following his diet for 4-5 years. He says he is still on his diet because he still needs to lose more weight."

“If Barry Sears eats 100 grams of protein that translates into 400 calories of protein (1 gram of protein = 4 calories). Since the proportions of the diet are 30/30/40, this means he also consumes 400 calories of fat, and about 500 calories of carbohydrate. His total calorie intake is therefore 1300 calories per day. A conservative estimate of his actual needs would be over 2,300 calories a day, with only sedentary activity. This means every day he is 1,000 calories short of his needs. Every week he comes up 7,000 calories short, which must be made up from his fat stores. One pound of fat amounts to 3,500 calories. Therefore, Barry Sears must lose 2 pounds of fat a week on his diet. Every year by calculation he loses 104 pounds. Since he says he has been on his diet for 4 to 5 years this means he has lost over 400 pounds. “At this point in the debate,” McDougall continues, “I asked him, ‘Barry Sears: A) Did you start your diet at over 600 pounds? B) Do you defy the laws of nature? or C) Is it that you cannot and do not follow your own diet?’”

Critics say that people lose weight from the Zone diet not by controlling insulin, but because the diet requires people to eat few calories. “I disagree strongly with the notion that having high blood insulin, by itself, makes you gain more weight,” says Gerald Reaven, M.D., of Stanford University. “There are so many studies showing that if you decrease calories, people lose weight, and it doesn’t matter if you do it by cutting fat, protein or carbohydrate.”

Blood type diet: Do we really need to eat like cavemen?

A third popular fad diet, the blood type diet, has been around since Peter J. D’Adamo, N.D. wrote “Eat Right For Your Type” in 1996. “The book’s basic premise,” says vegan nutrition expert Michael Klaper, M.D., “that Type O’s are the dominant, hunter-caveman type that require meat in the diet, that Type A’s are docile vegetarians, while Type B’s are dairy-eating omnivores, has become a manifesto for many people to rationalize including regular portions of meat and other animal products in there diet. (After all, my ancestors did it.)”

“It’s a fallacy to even speak of ‘original’ type O’s or ‘original’ type A’s because blood types did not originate with humans,” says Dr. Stephan Bailey, a nutritional anthropologist at Tufts University. “They came on the biologic scene long before humans did. Furthermore, there is no anthropologic evidence whatsoever that all prehistoric people with a particular blood type ate the same diet.” The prestigious “Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter” gave the blood type diet it’s lowest possible rating.

The diet works, says author John Robbins, simply because it so sharply restricts caloric intake. “The diets recommended for all four blood types are each extremely low in calories. Some day’s plans have only 1,000 calories, half the caloric needs of an adult woman.”

Eat more plant foods, less animal foods for optimal health and fitness

The answer to effective weight loss and a fit lifestyle, many experts believe, is not in high-fat, low-carb fad diets. Rather, a growing body of studies suggests that it is in cutting back on high-fat foods and increasing the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet. In addition, regular exercise is a crucial part of keeping fit.

“A key point is not to ‘diet’,” says Kathleen Putnam, the nutritionist. “All a person can think about when going on a diet is going off of it. When making lifestyle changes of any type, I’d recommend making ones a person can live with over the long haul. Not radical changes that are short-term fixes but rather gradual, small changes.” For example, instead of saying you will never eat ice cream, you could say you will cut the amount of ice cream you eat in half.

Putnam says there are some general nutritional and lifestyle principles that apply to most people, such as the benefit of cutting back on high foods. However, Putnam says, “I tell clients there are many ways to get to the goal of weight loss, and we just need to figure out which way will work for you.”

She encourages people to eat breakfast and to eat every three to four hours. “This prevents overeating and poor food choices due to excessive hunger and cravings caused by skipping meals or going long periods without eating.” Also, “eat plenty of whole fruits and vegetables and be sure to choose the ones you enjoy. And drink eight to 10 glasses of water daily.”

“Build your meals and grocery shopping trips around plant foods and whole plant foods. By this I mean, whole grain products, whole fruit, whole vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds. I would recommend using meat, fish, poultry and dairy products that are organic, and to a much lesser degree than plant foods and what is typically seen in the traditional American diet,” she adds.

Sensible food choices of such “humbler” foods will help to regulate your body’s functions … naturally


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