Addicted To Skinny: The Perpetuation of Fad Diets in American Society


Let’s face it. If [fad] diets worked, we’d all be thin already. – Sandra Aamodt, neuroscientist

Here is a brief description of why I chose this topic and why it’s important to recognize fad dieting as an issue that needs to be addressed.

To learn more about my personal interest in this topic, click here.

What is a Fad Diet?

The definition of a fad diet is “any of a number of weight-reduction diets that either eliminate one or more of the essential food groups or recommend consumption of one type of food in excess at the expense of other foods” (Segen’s Medical Dictionary). These diets attract the public’s attention and become popular due to the fact that they are advertised as a fast and easy alternative to losing weight.


(Butler, Stephanie. “Eat Like an Egyptian.”)

Since around the 4th century B.C., the practice of dieting has been prevalent in many societies. The word diata (diet in English) was first used in ancient Greece and was meant to represent a way of life that encompassed food, drink, and exercise (Twilley). Hippocrates, a Greek physician believed that man “cannot live healthily on food without a certain amount of exercise” (Foxcroft). Beginning in the 1670s in Europe, select medical experts attempted to warn the public about the dangers of being overweight. In the early 18th century, obesity began to be recognized as a medical problem in Great Britain and shortly after, the term “dieting” appeared in American medical journals (Vester). The first known diet guide was originally created for men. It was written by William Banting in 1863 and was titled Letters On Corpulence. This pamphlet articulated that excess weight isn’t genetic; it could be lost if one had enough determination and perseverance to follow Banting’s diet program (Vester). Roughly 30 years later, dieting became popular among women as well. At the time, women were actually encouraged to eat more as being plump was considered beautiful (Vester).

Going to Extremes

(“Tapeworm Diet”)
(Bahadur, Nina. “It’s Amazing How Much The ‘Perfect Body’ Has Changed In 100 Years.” )

At the turn of the twentieth century, with a rise in urbanization, people’s eating habits began to shift. Fad diets became increasingly popular in America. Lulu Hunt Peters, a Physician from California, popularized calorie counting in 1917 with the release of her pamphlet “Diet and Health with Key to the Calories” (Lynch). The pamphlet encouraged women to eat low-calorie meals, as well as count calories in order to lose weight (Hargrove). This pamphlet began the calorie counting craze that is still prevalent today. In the 1920s as flapper dancers emerged as a new style icon, their bodies, which were thin and flat, became the new standard of beauty; women felt societal pressure to try to look like them. From this, the tapeworm diet emerged in the United States. This popular diet consisted of “swallowing a pill containing tapeworm cysts to introduce a parasite into one’s intestine” and frequently resulted in many serious side effects such as epilepsy and meningitis (“All About Food…”; Markowitz). These are only two examples of the dangerous lengths people were willing to go to in order to fit into society’s expectation of the “ideal” body. Although diets were originally created to promote healthy habits, throughout history, they have shifted into promoting a specific body type, as well as questionable and dangerous eating habits. For a more in-depth description of the history of fad diets click here.

Contemporary Dieting Trends

Fad dieting has plagued our nation for decades and the media has only perpetuated the problem, though society’s expectation’s of a certain body type is constantly changing. Many of these “ideal” figures, however, have not been synonymous with a healthy body. This is what makes fad diets potentially dangerous. The strong desire to lose weight, for purposes of physical beauty, is ingrained in our culture and it causes people to go great lengths to change their physical appearance (Poirier). New fad diets are constantly emerging, and people are continuously trying them, despite their concerning success rates (Patil). Today, some of the most popular diets are the keto diet, intermittent fasting, and juice cleanses. The ketogenic diet involves eating very high amounts of fat, a moderate amount of protein, and very few carbs. Although this diet can cause temporary weight loss, keto diets are very prone to cause weight regain because they can be hard to stick to long term (Pappas). Intermittent fasting comes in many forms, but the basic idea is to restrict yourself from eating for only a certain amount of hours a day. Evidence suggests that it leads to weight loss, but there hasn’t been any longitudinal research done thus far that demonstrates that intermittent fasting causes long term weight loss (Heaney). Lastly, “a juice cleanse is a type of diet that involves consuming only juices from vegetables and fruits in an attempt to lose weight and detoxify the body” (Whitworth). They are controversial because, like many other diets, they don’t offer long term weight loss solutions. To learn more about fad-dieting today click here.

Image citations from left to right.
(Schober, Tony, “Women’s Magazine Covers Need to Die.”; “Lea Michele, Women’s Health Magazine”; Schober, Tony, “Women’s Magazine Covers Need to Die.” )

The Media’s Role

(Parker, Jenny. “Looking Into A Study That Examines How Social Media Affects Psychological Well-Being And Body Image.” )

On television and in magazines, diets are advertised to be an “easy fix” to a person’s “excess pounds”. Social media platforms such as Instagram have only enforced unrealistic body standards and have led to an obsession with weight loss, and a constant feeling that our bodies are not “perfect” enough. We are constantly bombarded with images of people with minuscule waists and flat stomachs, which leads us to believe that we are overweight when in fact often, our bodies are completely healthy (The Media’s Influence on Teen Diets). The public craves a quick fix, and fad diets are the seemingly perfect solution. “[We] follow them because fad diets have become a major part of North American culture” (Poirier). Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian have advertised appetite suppressant lollipops, making starving oneself popular and fashionable (Miller). For years dieticians have been warning against fad diets, emphasizing that the best way to lose weight is by eating less and exercising more (Downs). Making long term lifestyle changes can also be a much more difficult and lengthy process that many do not want to go through. So we turn to restrictive fad diets that claim to be easy fixes. Unfortunately, most diets are “based on poor nutrition science” and can often lead to very detrimental outcomes, and in some cases, destroy one’s relationship with food (Smith).

How to Spot a Fad Diet

This video explains what a fad diet is, why they don’t work, and how to steer clear of them.

The Basics

If a diet mentions any of the things below, it is most likely a fad diet and it is in your best interest to avoid it.

  1. Claims easy and quick weight loss
  2. Eliminates or severely restricts certain food groups
  3. Says that weight loss can happen without exercise
  4. Wants you to buy dietary supplements
  5. Says you need to consume foods in a certain order for weight loss to occur

Here is a TED talk, in which neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt tells us her personal story about how dieting affected her life. She also teaches us how dieting can often do more harm than good and explains the science behind why dieting is so often ineffective.


Bettering Yourself With Mindful Eating

Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt spoke about how transformative and beneficial mindful eating was for her. Mindful eating encourages you to pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness signals and to listen to them (Willard). Here is an image that explains the basics of mindful eating. This may seem trivial, but listening to your body is crucial to developing healthy eating habits.

Instead of going on a fad diet, it is healthier to look at the way you eat as a whole and make long-term improvements that are sustainable. If you want to change the way you eat, forget the word “diet”, and instead start thinking about making lifestyle changes.

Here are a few easy ways to improve the way you eat:

  1. Eat more fruits and vegetables. They reduce the risks of many diseases as well as provide you with nutrients.
  2. Eat whole grains in place of refined white bread. Whole wheat flour is much more nutritious than white flour.
  3. Drink more water. Staying hydrated affects your energy and brain activity and can boost your metabolism.
  4. Exercise whenever possible (preferably 3-4 times a week depending on your age and fitness level). Physical activity burns calories and builds muscle, both important factors in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

How Can We Make a Long-Lasting Difference?

Addressing this problem on a larger scale is difficult because dieting is so deeply ingrained in our culture. I believe where it starts is educating children about healthy eating so they know how to make health-conscious decisions in the future. In the state of California, the California Healthy Youth Act 101 states that “California students have the right to comprehensive sex education that is medically accurate, inclusive, and unbiased”. I believe that education about healthy eating and the dangers of dieting should be a part of the health curriculum in both public and private schools. Many adults who are addicted to dieting now, still aren’t aware of how ineffective and detrimental fad diets can be. Educating the youth about how to keep their bodies healthy is equally important as teaching them about their sexual health.

(“Know More. Live Brighter.”)
(Kgo. “2018 ELECTION RESULTS: Which California Propositions Passed, Failed.”)

To address this problem on a larger scale I would like to suggest a proposition that would be on the state of California’s ballot which would make it a requirement to involve education about healthy eating in health class for students up to the age of 18. The process for getting a proposition to actually appear on the ballot is a grueling one, but this issue is one that needs to be addressed if we want to provide the next generation with a healthier future. If the proposition were to be approved by the majority of voters, it would be a huge step forward toward a healthier country. Diet culture is prevalent in our society and without the proper education about it, youth will continue to struggle to have a healthy relationship with food. Researchers have found that the eating habits of children from a young age have an impact on how they eat as adults (Steinhoff). If we began to teach all kids how to eat healthfully and happily, we could prevent detrimental health issues caused by poor eating habits.

Click here for my complete works cited.

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  1. April 26, 2019 by Lenox.Hill

    I thought that this was a very interesting presentation. Looking at the history of fad diets was very eye-opening because I do not think a lot of people realize how far these diets date back to. I think that your call to action about including education about this in California is great. I think that by starting this in a place like California, it could create a chain effect for other states.

  2. April 29, 2019 by Margot

    Hi! I really enjoyed reading your project. Parts of it shocked me especially the mindless eating image because I do a lot of those things listed. Also, I liked how you gave some background to fad diets at the beginning, which was also interesting.

  3. April 29, 2019 by Jack Wilcox

    Hi! Great job on this presentation. I thought you did a very good job using your information to portrait an important message. I think this presentation can make a real impact. Good work.

  4. April 29, 2019 by Maddie Hatfield

    Hi! I had NO idea that fad dieting was such a big craze during the early 20th century or how extreme it was! This presentation was so cool! I really enjoyed learning about the history of dieting and why it is so bad for our health.

  5. April 29, 2019 by Abby Sekoff

    This project was great! It kept me interested the whole time with all the visuals and stats. It ‘s crazy how the social norms change so quickly. You seem. very invested in and passionate about this topic. How did you get so into it?

  6. May 06, 2019 by Sabina Dzankic

    Wow! I am so impressed with this work, absolutely inspiring.

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