It started with an article called The Most Dangerous Diets Ever when I used to direct a large wellness site. The post included dieting methods like “The Tapeworm Diet” (which is exactly what it sounds like), “The Cookie Diet,” and the forgotten “Prolinn Diet” (a nice mix of starvation + slaughterhouse byproducts). It was a sobering reminder of all the crazy diets that have come, gone, and been reincarnated with new twists.
In the first week, more than 4 million people clicked through the post. On one hand, part of me felt like we succeeded. On the other hand, my growing frustration shifted to something much bigger: Are any of these articles really helping you improve your diet?
Sure, you could say that not reaching for a tapeworm or cabbage soup is a win, but I’m not sure that anyone who chooses those options feels like they’ve found the perfect way to eat. Instead, they’re just trying to get small wins, even if it means taking a short-term loss in enjoyment from eating.
The frustration and guilt I experienced from that article changed my career (I left my job shortly after) and the way I wanted to help people. Just as importantly, it made me rethink which diets are really dangerous.
Why Dietary Ends Don’t Justify Dieting Means
The idea of “dangerous diets” was fascinating because even though many of them were seemingly crazy, people still were willing to give these diets (and many others) a try.
The desire to lose weight, build muscle, or live longer is such a powerful end-goal that we’re willing to go the farthest lengths to try almost anything to achieve the results we desire.
There are three important factors to keep in mind when considering your own diet.
- Chasing a goal gives us a rush. We know that the anticipation of something gives us a bigger shot of dopamine than the end result. It’s why it’s important to enjoy the journey, but also something to keep in mind when selecting diets. The idea of getting fast results (with higher cost or discomfort) will charge your brain with feel-good chemicals that can blind you from what the actual experience will be like.
- Diet culture is messing with your perception. If you’re willing to eat (or more appropriately, not eat) almost anything to lose weight, then some prior experience must have made extreme scenarios appear doable. Hold this thought for a moment because it’s incredibly important.
- Don’t take the quick weight-loss bait. Just remember, if it sounds too good to be true or extremely temporary, then it’s unlikely to give you the results you want. Or, it’ll be all smoke and mirrors. You don’t need to lose 10 pounds really quickly only to gain it back just as fast. This does far more damage than we can begin to explain. (Yeah, we’re looking at all those 7-day cleanse diets.)
For a moment, let’s revisit point #2 about the current diet culture. Your willingness to pursue extremes might be the result of the nutritional institution of unfair diets.
What’s an “unfair diet?” Any plan that instills the belief that healthy eating must be:
- Limiting or restrictive
- Bland and flavorless
- Shifting from one extreme to another
While many coaches scoff at the juice cleanses and cabbage soup diets of the world (myself included), are these really that much worse than “healthy” plans that result in you losing your mind, binging, thinking your body is broken, or believing that a good diet is impossible to maintain?
It’s easy to see how both are a problem, but when you grab the tapeworm, at least you have a sense that you’re going to an extreme. When you follow the “never eat dessert” diet, you’re building a belief that health requires long-term sacrifices that don’t feel sustainable.
It doesn’t have to be a black-and-white decision between extremes.
The Unofficial Great Diet Experiment
What happens when you ask a nutrition expert to put together “the perfect human diet?” You might be surprised.
To get a sense of what is shaping your opinion of “healthy diets,” I ran an experiment. I reached out to diet and nutrition coaches with social media followings (combined) of at least 50,000 people. Admittedly, some were credentialed RDs, others had nutrition certifications, and others fell into an unclear category of expertise.
The goal was to understand how people position the foods you should be eating. I wanted the coaches’ opinions on the type of diet they would create for a client, and I provided some very specific guidelines.
The final tally of contributors included: 3 RDs, 2 people with a master’s in science, 3 “nutrition coaches” with varying levels of certifications, and 2 diet coaches who worked with bodybuilders and physique competitors.
I purposely avoided experts I’ve worked with before. After all, I didn’t want any experimenter bias interfering with my selections. [Translation: if I know how someone will respond, what’s the point in asking.]
Each person received the following email:
Hey, [insert name here],
I’m writing an article where I’m collecting the thoughts of some influencers in the world of health and fitness. Here’s the hypothetical scenario I’d like you to troubleshoot: if you could put together your version of the healthiest, most sustainable and enjoyable diet, what would you recommend?
Your individual answer may or may not be used. In your response, please highlight the primary goal of the diet. (For instance, it could be for general health, fat loss, muscle gain, sports performance, or any other specified goal.) Feel free to be as detailed as you want, and be sure to design for enjoyment but without sacrificing results. Thanks for your time and consideration
The Perfect Human Diet (And Why It’s F*cked)
I received 10 responses, and all of the contributors decided to create “the perfect human diet” designed for fat loss.
I reviewed all of their diets and pooled together common responses. These included:
- 80 percent of the respondents included “chicken and broccoli” in at least 2 meals per day.
- 100 percent avoided bread, dairy, or grains of any type.
- 100 percent did not include any type of dessert, even a small allowance such as a piece of chocolate or even a non-dessert like a bowl of cereal.
- 100 percent included protein shakes, meal replacement bars, or powders
- 70 percent did not allow for any condiments or dressings other than olive oil.
- 50 percent did not include any starch, not even natural options like potatoes.
- 0 percent of respondents recommended white rice (a crushing blow to my rice-loving ways)
This very informal survey (yeah, I admit it’s not exactly a peer-reviewed meta-analysis) pointed me towards a very simple conclusion:
Most diet plans—and the experts creating them—consider “The perfect human diet” to not be very human.
The growing diet battle isn’t just about helping people identify healthy foods. It’s about meeting people where they are, creating sustainable plans, and helping people see that some freedom in a diet plan can help them believe they can stick to the plan for the long term.
Most people know what is good for them and what isn’t.
Sure, more education can help offset confusing food marketing, but the expert’s job isn’t to make the simple act of eating seem so difficult to follow.
The perceived lack of variety and freedom is a big reason why so many people are unable to sustain better eating habits.
Undoing Unfair Diets: How to Fix Your Diet
Part of me wonders how many experts understand how to cater their vault of knowledge into realistic practices and habits that still deliver great results.
Many people know the basics or even more complicated aspects of nutrition science; but, they don’t know (or choose not to take the personalized path) to help people build a plan around foods they could enjoy.
These experts are still stuck in a “clean eating” mindset, where the idea of good foods versus bad foods dominates the conversation.
While I’ll admit any diet should consist of less processed foods, more fruits and vegetables, and sources of protein, the black-and-white mindset is the foundation of what is wrong with most diet plans.
You don’t need to go cold-turkey on most foods. You can eat pasta, potatoes, rice, and dessert and still be healthy and lean.
There are limits to dietary freedom. Building a diet around Pop-Tarts, ice cream, and pizza as long as it “fits your macros” isn’t the best use of macronutrient science.
Instead of building a plan around those foods, find a way to fit them into your life around everything else.
Building the “You” Diet
The healthiest diet is the one that considers both the foods you should be eating for nutritious reasons—proteins (meat/chicken/eggs/fish/plant sources), fats (oils, nuts, dairy sources, avocados, seeds), and carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, rice, potatoes, grains)—and the foods that you enjoy and need to add for the sake of pleasure and mental sanity.
If your diet only consists of chicken and broccoli, it should be because that’s your choice. Not because you believe bland foods are the only way to a better body and improved health.
If you stop fearing foods, you’ll eventually see how many different plans can be a good solution, without having to break the bank (or your sanity) trying to be healthy.
A little less stress and a lot more understanding will go a long way towards not only making your diet more enjoyable and something you can follow for the long run.
Simplify Your Eating
Need help with your diet. What to eat, when to eat, and realistic tips to make it easier to snack, enjoy, and still lose weight? Find out how you can have your meal plans (and workouts) personalized with Born Fitness coaching.
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