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Don’t Get Duped: How to Navigate Diet Science

written by: •edited by: Carly Stockwell•updated: 9/9/2015

Do you have friends who bounce from fad diet to fad diet but rarely see results? Most of us do. Sometimes, it’s hard to blame them — especially when the media makes it difficult for us to separate the tried-and-true eating habits from the fly-by-night fads.

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    Just look at the Atkins diet, which suggests a drastic reduction in carbs. So drastic that early iterations of the diet resulted in nutritional deficiencies or insufficient fiber. Atkins changed over time to prevent those health problems, and it now recommends a little extra salt and supplements.

    But its science appears to have been fundamentally flawed from the beginning. Calories from carbs are no different than calories from pumpkins or peanuts, and therefore, Atkins adherents were losing water — a dangerous proposition — but not fat.

    It’s the perfect example of people following the loudest health advice instead of the wisest.

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    It’s Time to Look Past the Fads

    Unfortunately, Atkins isn’t the only fad diet making the news. One journalist recently made headlines by faking a study about the health benefits of chocolate. But this was no investigative journalism a la Woodward and Bernstein. His “study" was praised as a revolutionary way to think about chocolate’s role in our diets.

    Interestingly enough, he didn’t forge credentials; he just cleverly disguised some real ones. The serious-sounding Institute of Diet and Health that sponsored the study is only a simple webpage. Anyone who gave the diet a closer look would see the whole thing was bunk.

    But no one did. Media outlets ran with the story, generating thousands of page views for the diet and giving us yet another example of what happens when people blindly jump into trends. It’s too easy for the media to trick us, and we don’t think twice about who tells us how we should handle our health.

    Why does this happen?

    In today’s world of clickbait articles and instant gratification, the truth doesn’t sell headlines or boost ratings. Good health practices are boring and don’t change frequently, and they require more work than the “get fit in five days" method that daytime TV personalities love to promote.

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    Sometimes, Boring Is Better

    In our fast-paced world, it’s hard to hear the quiet group of doctors who have been touting the same health practices for years over the roar of the media. On top of that, according to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, creating a new healthy habit takes about 66 days before it becomes natural and automatic.

    Progress takes time, and on-the-go consumers are often too impatient to stick it out.

    The good news is that eating balanced food groups and regulating your calories is as effective as ever, and it has academically viable science behind it. So how can we avoid being duped? Some fads are trickier than others, but by vetting sources carefully, we can weed out the majority of bad diet science:

    1. Ask questions. Who recommends this program? Why? What do they have to gain? Are they being paid to appear on a show supporting the fad? Do they have added pressure to get TV ratings or clicks on a website to generate revenue? Is this diet based on a real, peer-reviewed study? By asking these questions, we can quickly identify whether this regimen is really meant to slim us down or just fatten someone else’s pocketbook.

    2. Look at the research. It’s easy to put up a front of legitimacy without having much behind it, so do some research, then do some more. The majority of fad diets won’t hold up to scrutiny under pressure. Look to Harvard University and Northwestern University, which have prestigious programs that produce reputable, trustworthy research every year. If you’ve never heard of the research institute, proceed with extreme caution.

    3. Speak with a professional. If you’re considering making a significant dietary or nutritional change, consider speaking to a doctor or a nutritionist. If a professional in the field hasn’t heard of the diet you’re considering, it’s a strong indicator that you probably shouldn’t try it.

    4. Don’t believe the hearsay. Use your best judgment when considering a new diet. If there really were a diet that would let you eat whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted and still help you lose weight or get healthier, research on the subject would be booming. As it stands, no such diet exists.

    Don’t rush into a new diet because you want to see results quickly. We all want to feel healthy today, but the fastest way to do that is to find a proven diet plan that works best for you and stick with it for 12 weeks. You might not change as quickly as you want to, but you’ll change much more quickly than someone who wastes time bouncing between ineffective quick-fix diets.

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    About the Author: Chris Cutter is the founder and CEO of LifeDojo. LifeDojo’s evidence-based wellness programs lead employees through a journey of motivation, daily action, and support, resulting in permanent health behavior change.