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Restrictive Diets Part 1: Why Food Fads Create Millionaires Not Athletes

Paleo, gluten and dairy free, Atkins, Keto…the diet list is endless. Restrictive eating is dominating our plates but not supporting our health and athletic ambitions.

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Restrictive Diets

As a trainer and health coach, people aren’t asking me “What should I eat?” anymore. They are asking me “What can I eat?” Restrictive diets are everywhere, especially those that heavily restrict carbohydrates. They reach broad audiences through books and the internet, and on a smaller scale through “21 day challenges” or similar short-term programs hosted by workplaces or gyms, tricking and teasing us to believe there is a shortcut to success.

We can all agree that our bodies are better off with less sugary, fried, salty, and processed foods. Through eliminating supposedly “wholesome foods,” however, today’s restrictive diet fads are leaving us with more questions than answers about how to eat healthy–and possibly long-term health consequences that could seriously hinder your performance. I’m not going to specifically answer the question of what you should eat (watch out for a future post on this), but I will call these diets out on some of their biggest tricks and how these shortcuts can actually do more damage than good when taken to the extreme.

The search for order and routine

If you were an athlete in your younger days, you might miss the structured discipline of training, which is why many people are drawn to the aforementioned diet programs or food challenges.

Yet, each diet – its rules, restrictions, and “scientific evidence” – becomes a flavor of the week as they try to one up each other in a race to the top. It is nearly impossible for the everyday person to leave the grocery store feeling successful with all the conflicting information from various diets and “experts” about how to eat. Wandering aimlessly through the aisles, trying to read labels and separate fact from fiction from marketing, we find ourselves scratching our heads wondering if anything is really healthy anymore. Even more importantly, we are left wondering how to fuel our bodies for optimal performance, physically and mentally.

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When did grocery shopping become so overwhelming? ©Anna Zielinska/ Getty Images

Weight loss and healthy eating was once a fairly simple concept: lay off the decadent desserts to keep the scale happy. Over the past few decades, as we have learned how to engineer food, society has become obsessed with finding the magic bullet for physical perfection (thank you Instagram and #fitspo) through a nauseating roller coaster of diet fads, cleanses, supplements, and miracle superfoods–typically accompanied by nutritional pseudoscience to “prove” that they all work. Middle of the road is no longer enough and, in our desperate attempt to achieve the body of a Greek god, we have become less healthy and more confused than ever.

Taking the restriction road

At the root of this confusion is the “restrictive diet.” Although basic nutritional science tells us that your weight is simply a function of calories consumed vs. calories expended, mankind has developed the audacity to try to outsmart our own physiology.

Going beyond the simple calories in/calories out equation, we started blaming entire food categories for our predicament. The debate recently swung 180 degrees from villainizing fats to making carbs and sugar the ugly enemy standing between us and six pack abs. Restriction of macronutrients, from the low fat days of the 1980s and 90s to the low carb days of South Beach and Atkins, have morphed into the era of superfoods in which kale, acai, and apple cider vinegar reign the kingdom. Buzzwords like “antioxidants,” “omega 3s,” “gluten,” and “probiotics” casually roll off our tongues like we actually know what they mean and how they impact our bodies.

Yet we still aren’t happy. Now, super-restrictive diets like Whole30, Paleo, and the newly emerging Keto diet are touting the ability to give you superior health and an ideally lean physique to boot.

So are these restrictive diets just the latest fads? Have we finally figured out the yellow brick road to nutritional perfection? Or are we dangling from one arm off a nutritional cliff?

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Fad diets lure people in with promises of perfection.

There are a variety of reasons that people might follow a restrictive diet: weight loss, disease management or prevention, allergies or intolerances, stomach or digestive issue, athletic performance, ethical or religious beliefs, social conformity, or even an eating disorder. Sometimes people will even use a restrictive diet as a crutch to avoid “bad” foods in social situations.

Another layer is the many different types of restrictive diets. Some focus on overall calories or on macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins). Others might limit or completely restrict meat and dairy or specifically restrict certain grains, fruits, or vegetables in addition to a macronutrient.

Following a restrictive diet for a medical, allergy, ethical, or religious reason is not the topic of this article. I am concerned, however, that highly restrictive diets for the purpose of weight loss or performance will have devastating consequences and that we are blindly following some very bad and short-sighted science.

Food science under the microscope

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You won’t find science in a jar. ©Douglas P Sacha/droopydogAJNA/Getty Images

Solid and effective nutritional guidelines exist, yet they are tossed aside like the brownest banana of the bunch. It seems absurd that I even have to write this article because we are not in unchartered waters in terms of food science. We actually do know what works for the majority of the population. Yes, science changes rapidly and there are many complex factors involved the ecosystem that surrounds us, but eating a balanced and comprehensive diet of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, lean proteins, and good fats has been proven over and over again to lead to a desirable weight and health status – if you actually follow this advice consistently and over a long period of time.

I have to pause here to anchor the discussion and remind you that being “healthy” goes far beyond being fat, skinny, or lean. You can have a higher BMI yet a low percentage of body fat, meaning you are mostly lean muscle. Don’t take this to the extreme, though. It is, in fact, possible to be too lean. A certain amount of body fat is essential for your hormones, brain and organ function, immune system, etc.

Just like there are tried and true guidelines for nutrition, there are similar healthy ranges for body fat percentage, HDL and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, etc. These numbers should be much more important than the number on the scale because they actually indicate health (and they can all be improved through diet and exercise). If you don’t know your numbers, get yourself to the doctor!

Believe in boring

Now, back to what we know about food. “Eating patterns” such as the DASH and the Mediterranean diets have been endorsed by many credible nutritional institutions and experts and are widely available. You can look up lots of information on these plans and follow them quite easily. They promote everything we know to be “healthy” through quality of food consumption: fresh fruits and vegetables, good fats, lean proteins, grains, etc. However, they are neither compelling nor sexy and have no provocative marketing or celebrity behind them. You don’t have to buy the materials for a premium, and they make no promises of a “flatter belly in just three weeks.” In short, they are boring.

These “boring” eating patterns, in addition to exercising regularly and taking care of your sleep and stress over a sustained period of time, will lead to a healthier you and probably help you keep weight off for the foreseeable future. So why aren’t we all following them religiously? Why does the health of our society continue to spiral? The problem is not lack of information or lack of a viable and effective diet option. For those of us that have access to the healthy foods recommended by these plans, it is simply our impatience. We are getting in our own way, seduced by the emotional high of false hope that you are one diet away from a perfect body.

Quick results suck you in

What deeply disturbs me most about these highly restrictive and low carb diets is that they very quickly deliver exactly what people are so desperately searching for. You will absolutely lose weight by following an extremely low carb restricted diet. Because most people who try these diets tend to eat a lot of sugar, carbs, alcohol, and processed foods in the first place, removing these “bad” foods brings dramatic results in just a week or two.

A young dieting woman standing in front of the refrigerator, contemplating and thinking about what to eat for hunger. Making choices and decision for healthy lifestyle, adidas, GamePlan A, nutrition, health
To eat or not to eat—that is the question. ©YinYang/Getty Images

The quick drop is, however, water weight. Water is retained when your body stores carbs. When you restrict carbs, the “weight” will seemingly disappear. You will look and feel “lean” and will think that you have found the cure for your perceived physical flaws. The issue is that this isn’t really sustainable weight loss. You haven’t lost fat weight and you haven’t changed your metabolism. When the pounds don’t continue to drop beyond the first few weeks (your body can’t and won’t sustain the same rate of water weight loss), people get frustrated, give up, and run into the arms of a new fad and its novel promises.

Jumping on the bandwagon

Even more disturbing is how “experts” have gotten wind of this sick cycle and cash in with the latest and greatest diets backed by shaky pseudo-science. All I can say is shame on them for taking advantage of people’s confusion and desperation to look and feel better. Many of them are doctors and have impressive credentials attached to their name, yet writing the next bestselling diet book has become more important than promoting the safe and proven nutritional guidelines that we all know to be true.

It’s no surprise that removing processed food and the accompanying excess sugar, salt, and trans fats could benefit us all. One particularly concerning and common set of restrictions among the aforementioned diets, however, is the common restriction on fruits, grains, and legumes.

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Omnivores can indulge in red meat… occasionally, and in small amounts. ©Jürgen Müller/EyeEm

I’d like to reveal that the real reason that these foods are restricted is because they are high in carbohydrates and, if these restrictive diets eliminate the “bulkiest” sources of carbohydrates, people will lose a dramatic amount of water weight in the beginning. Because people lose weight immediately, the diets will continue to “work” in the short term and thus sell books and make money. Period. The end.

Any credible nutritional source will tell you that you should get 45-65% of your calories from carbohydrates and that your macro intake should match your activity level, yet one version of the Keto diet actually suggests that only 5% of your calories come from carbohydrates. Can excess carbs cause you to gain weight and thus impact your performance? Absolutely. Should you limit your carb intake to 5% of your caloric intake? Absolutely not.

Here’s the juicy catch and why diets create millionaires, not healthy people. Logically, you probably know that your body simply cannot function properly on such a low carbohydrate consumption. However, dropping 5-10 pounds within a couple of weeks sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Why not give it a shot and hope that the weight will somehow stay off? Maybe this is just the kick in the butt that you need? These quick “reset” diets hook people in by helping them eliminate sugar, alcohol, caffeine, carbs, etc. The problem is that people become dependent on these “resets” and don’t actually change their lifestyle.

Check out part two where I reflect on the long-term damage of short-term wins.

Keep your diet fads to yourself.

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by Gemina Stroud 17.08.2017
Wonderful post Brooke!! I agree and do believe many people have become millionaires off of the fears of others. I am often left wondering "well, what CAN I eat?!" after watching documentaries like "Forks Over Knives" and other news reports. If the food doesn't make us sick, our thoughts about it will.
by Brooke Rosenbauer Gemina Stroud 17.08.2017
Thanks for reading Gemina! Completely agree that the mental sickness could be just as dangerous as the physical aspect. Food should be enjoyed, not feared! Be on the lookout for follow-up posts with some guidance on how to safely navigate all the food information out there :)
by Heidi 17.08.2017
Fantastic article! Sums up exactly what is wrong with fad diets/quick weight loss claims. Can't wait to see part 2!
by Brooke Rosenbauer Heidi 17.08.2017
Thanks Heidi!! Stay tuned!!
by Rene 17.08.2017
I cannot tell you how many friends have tried to convince me to try whole30 or some other Paleo challenge or diet with them. Strict elimination diet, except when used to identify an intolerance just never made sense to me.

I am very curious about your take on the zone diet, though. The "avoid" list is basically limited to processed foods, and the "limit" list includes high glycemic carbs and "bad" fats. The big take away is delivering your macros in a very balanced manner across the course of your day, which for me makes it easier to keep track of where I am and not over indulging. My big question though is about the macros balance which is set at 40% carb, and 30% each fat and protein. I would love to know more about what is "ideal" and how we've determined that, and how close this approach is or isn't to that.
by Brooke Rosenbauer Rene 17.08.2017
Hello Rene! Thank you so much for reading and for your excellent questions. I would say generally speaking, eliminating processed foods is a very good way to go and actually solves for some of your other concerns. The research is still a little fuzzy regarding the glycemic index and whether high glycemic index foods are actually worse than low glycemic index foods. If you take a slightly different approach and try to look at the quality of carbs you are eating (meaning less refined versus more refined), you will start to lean towards single source carbs like squash, potatoes, quinoa, barley, etc. These foods are higher quality because they retain their natural fiber, vitamins, and minerals and will promote more stable blood sugar levels. When you start trying to split this further gets into mucky water for me. Take white potatoes versus sweet potatoes as an example. In my opinion, both are natural sources of high quality carbs and both can be part of a healthy diet, regardless of where they fall on the glycemic index. Everybody has different physiology and will tolerate foods in different ways, thought. When it comes to good fat vs. bad fat, there is also a lot of conflicting research. The recent buzz about coconut oil is a perfect example of taking things to the extreme. I think everyone can agree that trans fats are "bad". After that, it is less black and white. Saturated fats can be part of a healthy diet, in moderation, while poly- and monounsaturated fats (olive oil, nuts, avocados, fish) are preferred as the main source of fats. To answer your question about balance, the most agreed "safe" ranges for macros are the following: 45-65% carbohydrates, 10-35% protein, and 20-35% fat. The specifics will depend on what works for you personally (which requires some experimentation) and it might also change day to day based on your physical activity. For example, endurance activities might require more carbs or heavy lifting might require more protein. Unfortunately there is no one universal "ideal." The bottom line is to not let marketing sway you towards a fad. Natural sources are best and try to consider both quality and macros to have a well-rounded and nutritious diet that keeps you going for the long run. Hope this was somewhat helpful!
by Skyler Atterbom 18.08.2017
Not a bad article. I would however, like to point out that there is a difference between eating for performance and eating for health. Eating for "health" I think is for someone just starting their fitness journey or perhaps someone who isn't active. Paleo, Keto, Whole 30, Zone, etc are ALL viable options - doctor approved, of course - for someone looking to make a positive change in their lives. These diets all help form healthy habits and behaviors/emotions toward food. When I first began my fitness journey I tried paleo. I lost weight, looked lean, and felt pretty good. It worked, period. It worked for 6 months and then I realized my PERFORMANCE was suffering in the gym. I then did my research and found a diet (Zone and then the RP Lifestyle) that better suited my goals for performance. Two different things with two different outcomes. One size does not fit all when it comes to nutrition.
by Brooke Rosenbauer Skyler Atterbom 21.08.2017
Thanks for your comment and for reading! I agree that health and performance can be different. Also, "healthy" is interpreted in many different ways, especially now with Instagram and social media promoting a certain image that looks "healthy" but might not actually be the best route for our minds and bodies in the long-term. I think whether we are talking about health or performance, we all should feel educated and empowered to understand the consequences of our decisions in the short and long term.
by Gabriela Moscoso 19.08.2017
Well, what can I say, I have seen and read so much about this or that diet, however I've found that having a healthy balance of natural foods (less processed) worked very well for me. However I am always looking for more reliable information to see where I can improve, and very much looking forward to the following posts. This is so great and backing up so many points I've told my family, now they finally give me some credit :) Thanks!
by Brooke Rosenbauer Gabriela Moscoso 21.08.2017
Hi Gabriela, I am glad this article was useful for you! Science is always changing and there are many different opinions when it comes to food. Definitely keep reading and educating yourself!
by Carmen Rojas 21.08.2017
Thank you for this article, it's a wave of fresh air among all the crazy diets advertising out there!
by Brooke Rosenbauer Carmen Rojas 21.08.2017
Thanks Carmen! Be on the lookout for part 2!
by Dominika W. 22.08.2017
Thank you for the article! I definitely agree with what you said. I am becoming quite annoyed how many people are telling others (on social media) what is the best way to eat and how they shame others. For example vegans shame anyone for eating meat and paleo people are mortified by carbs :-D we should all find our own way of eating and what makes us feel and perform the best. We have to experiment and find a sustainable way for us. We also have to be willing to reconsider when something stops working for us. I know, that I wouldn' t be able to go keto for example. I wouldn't be able to handle all the fat intake, because especially when I eat fats on empty stomach, I feel sick. This entire industry is making eating way more complicated than it really is :-)
by Jayne Gladdis 04.02.2018
I enjoyed this article, particularly since you comment in the need for plenty of carbs, which I love. I am interested to know what you think about Slimming World's food optimising. I'm following this plan and assess that I am eating a healthy, balanced diet, but would appreciate your feedback. I also grow my own veg on an allotment, which tastes completely different from shop purchased veg. Delicious. I won't even go into the benefits to mind and body of the actual physical process of being an allotmenteer....we'll be here for ever! Anyway, back to Slimming World....any thoughts?
by Andre Gonçalves Hasimoto 19.02.2018
I agree with the post. I've always been an athlete, so when I started to work (I work with Finance in the largest Sugar Cane Industry of Brazil and I spend the majority part of the day in the office), my exercise and diet routine became a mess. So I gain a lot of pounds and my performance on the gym decrease. So, as an athlete I discovered this new diets that promisse a lot of weight loss and an increase of my perfomance on the gym, so I started to follow it blindly. The conclusion: I waste my time, lost a lot of pounds, started to be unhhappy with myself, restrict a lot of foods (mainly carbs) and I compromised my social life with this. Everything changed when I went in to a Nutricionist and this professional helped me on my diet reeducation. I am healthy and happy person now.
by Matt 30.05.2018
This is certainly an interesting perspective, but my first question would be, if you're trying to highlight the dangers of diets that restrict particular macro and micro nutrients, why were vegetarian or vegan diets not on your list? These have the primary effect of restricting protein, which is the most important macro-nutrient, followed by fat, and lastly your precious carbs, which human beings actually have very adequate ability to live long healthy lives without any exogenous intake. Without dietary protein and fat, people die; the same cannot be said for carbs. Low carb diets may not be ideal for performance or body composition in already healthy individuals, but these interventions work because MOST people looking into these solutions are NOT already healthy; they typically have significant metabolic derangement coming from lifetimes of eating too-high carbohydrate processed-food diets, and the low carb interventions have shown to be very effective in resetting the ability for the body to properly regulate these metabolic signals of hunger and satiety, to say nothing of insulin resistance. I didn't mean for this to be a counterpoint to your article, as your general (VERY general) recommendations have nothing wrong with them per say, they just lack any nuance or actual helpful advice for someone who might be considering trying a Paleo or low carb approach to improving their health; and I would argue someone looking into these interventions is not in a place to simply start eating a 'balanced diet'.

First time here?