It's hard to turn down the lure of instant results. But fad diets -- the type that promise spectacular, rapid weight loss with few, if any, lifestyle changes on your part -- usually backfire, with unpleasant side effects and weight that comes back with a vengeance as soon as you stop dieting.
To help you avoid diet pitfalls, we talked to Rachel Berman, RD, director of nutrition for our sister site, CalorieCount.com, about the red flags that tell you you've wandered outside the sensible diet zone and are considering a fad.
RED FLAG: Not enough calories
While it's true that a sensible calorie restriction can help you lose weight, you need a certain amount of calories just to keep your body's normal functions trucking along. "When you're not feeding [your body] the calories it needs for involuntary things or any kind of motion, you're affecting your hormone levels which affect your metabolism," Berman warns.
She cites the American College of Sports Medicine's recommendations -- an absolute minimum of 1,200 calories per day for women and 1,800 for men. If your diet falls below that minimum -- like some forms of the HCG diet, which limit you to 500 calories per day -- steer clear.
RED FLAG: One size fits all
There's more to an effective diet than just meeting your bare minimum calorie needs and in this case, one size definitely doesn't fit all. It's a red flag, Berman says, if the diet doesn't address your individual calorie needs based on factors like your height, weight, age and past history with weight fluctuation.
RED FLAG: Isolating or demonizing a food group
If a diet severely restricts your intake of a particular macronutrient (fats, carbohydrates or proteins) you might want to run in the other direction -- fast. Each of those performs a vital function in your body and just as eating too much of any macronutrient can bring on unwanted consequences, so can having too little.
For example: If you don't eat enough carbohydrates, you won't be able to actually run away -- much less keep your heart beating or your nerve impulses firing. You need protein to create the lean muscle that powers your body's every movement. And fat is actually everywhere because, as Berman points out, every single one of your cell membranes is made of fat. Fat also helps regulate your appetite.
RED FLAG: Ignoring behavioral aspects of your eating habits
When a diet doesn't address your actual relationship with food or give you a chance to identify and restructure those behaviors, you know you're looking at a fad. The good news is that no matter what kind of diet plan you're on, you can take steps to start acknowledging and reshaping your relationship with food. One of the tactics that CalorieCount.com encourages, for example, is logging your food intake and being aware of your eating. That allows you to be mindful and accountable for what you've done.
"That's probably half the battle in these situations," Berman says. A vibrant support community helps too: The more you communicate with others and plan to feel satisfied physically and mentally as part of your diet, she says, the more successful you're going to be at keeping that weight off in the long term.
RED FLAG: Unrealistic expectations
Sorry, but the promises of super-fast weight loss -- 30 pounds in 30 days, for example -- usually don't hold water. One to two pounds a week is still the maximum recommended weight loss for many reasons, Berman says. It helps regulate hormone changes to keep the weight off, and it indicates that you're easing into a new lifestyle behavior without restricting yourself too much.
"I like to tell my clients to measure their success not only by the number on the scale but how they're feeling, how their clothes fit, and their mood," Berman says. "Being healthy is not just about being thin, it's about having a good percentage of muscle mass versus fat, it helps ward off diseases and it helps improve longevity." Now that's a result worth fighting for.