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The truth about fad diets | Naini Setalvad

The truth about fad diets

Crash diets might be doing you more harm than good.

The term “Diet” has its origins in the Greek term ‘Diatia’ — a way of life. However, a dictionary will tell you that it refers to a set formulation of foods consumed when ill or for losing weight.

Thanks to years and years of poor food habits, we have seen an increase in obesity and lifestyle diseases like diabetes and hypertension. A quick fix that cures all is what most people desire and as a result, we have a range of diets. These ‘fad-diets’ often disrupt the normal pattern of eating, promising drastic results in a short period of time. Due to their unsustainable nature, they don’t last long and come and go out of fashion rather quickly. These diets are rarely logical, often unscientific and in some cases, fatally dangerous. A common factor seen in these ‘fad diets’ is the vilification and elimination of a certain food group.

Keto and Paleo Diet

They are so trendy currently that restaurants offer specialised Keto menus. These diets depend on a large protein and fat intake and a drastic reduction in carbohydrate intake. Our bodies are designed to use fat for energy in a situation where it is starved of carbohydrates, which are the primary source of energy. These diets use this mechanism to achieve weight loss. However, the starvation mode is a state of stress for the human body. This unnatural state of lowering one’s immunity among many other side effects that could put an individual at a risk for heart disease, mental health issues, and liver and kidney damage.

Mono Diet

True to its name, this diet allows you to eat one or two food groups every day — for eg. you can only eat vegetables and fruit one day, only carbohydrate-rich starches the next day and only protein on the next. Sounds ridiculous? It takes out the fun and joy from one’s meals and has a terrible impact on blood-sugar regulation and lowers immunity.

Intermittent Fasting

While there is some concern about this diet, one isn’t completely opposed to it. Fasting has been an age-old tradition in our country. The basis of this diet is maintaining a long enough gap between dinner and breakfast to help control blood sugar, improve hormonal balance and improve quality of sleep. However, the quality of food tends to go unmonitored under this diet plan. People tend to indulge in high-calorie, processed food during their eating window. Larger gaps between meals result in a sugar and electrolyte imbalance which could cause anxiety and a general feeling of gloom. To be able to unlock the benefits of this diet, one has to eliminate processed foods, stay hydrated and eat balanced meals.


As the name suggests, this diet entails mixing water with powder to create a drink that replaces your meal. This drink contains a truckload of chemicals, preservatives and stabilisers. Fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses and fats are stripped of their natural forms and reduced to their chemical contents. Devoid of natural flavour or texture, this meal replacement is considered unnatural and impractical. Not to forget, they cost a bundle!

Vegan Meal Plan

Free of animal products, this diet comes highly recommended by environmentalists as well as health experts. Animal products often contain preservatives and growth hormones that are detrimental to health. Avoiding such foods is a nutritional boon but it loses its appeal when one starts replacing them with high fat and processed vegan alternatives. There is a genuine risk of Vitamin B12 and D3 deficiencies for those following a vegan diet.

Balanced Diet

Instead of any expensive, restrictive and unsustainable diets, it is ideal to simply follow a balanced diet. A balanced diet is fuss-free, easy and focuses on including all food groups. The best example of a balanced meal is our very own Indian thali.  Carbohydrates should account for 60% of your daily intake — and remember not all these calories are attributed to roti or rice. Fruits and vegetables also contain carbohydrates. Local, seasonal vegetables should fill half of your plate. The remainder of carbohydrates can come from whole grains — rice, millets, wheat. Whole grains are good at providing your body with energy without increasing blood sugar. They’re also a good source of Vitamin B which is crucial to our body processes. Whole grains also keep you full for a longer time, thus preventing binge-eating, especially junk food.

20% of your daily food intake needs to be protein. Good sources of this nutrient are dals, whole pulses like matki, moong, chana, black-eyed peas (chowli), fish, curd, eggs and chicken.  Fats are not villains. They need to be 20% of your daily food intake. Good Sources of fat that can be added to our meals are A2 Desi cow’s ghee, coconut oil, mustard oil and peanut oil.

Any meal is incomplete without spices and herbs. These are often tempered in fat which allows the body to absorb the anti-oxidants from these spices. So do not shy away from adding masalas, ginger, garlic, pepper and chillies to your meals. When hunger strikes between meals, snack on protein and fat-rich nuts and fibre-rich fruits.

A balanced meal provides varied nutrients in sufficient proportion, without relying on processed, unnatural foods. This healthy way of eating does not eliminate any foods and leaves a window to satisfy your cravings.

Then is a diet necessary?

Of course not. If you stick to the wholesome, Indian balanced diet with a little bit of awareness in terms of sources of nutrients, you’ll be able to manage your weight in a sustainable, long-term manner. Make small changes each day to come back to the regime followed by our ancestors. That is a ‘diet’ that has stood the test of time and that’s why it never goes out of fashion!

If we work on repairing the way we eat right now, our future generations may not have to “Diet”.

To read more English blogs, visit our blog section.

Naini Setalvad

The author is a leading nutritionist.

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