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Top 10 Failed Fad Diets

by Toby Oliva
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Let’s face it: to the world, looks matter. Everyone wants to be attractive, and the people who society considers attractive generally have it easier. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is—because society is problematic. And for better or worse, the concept of looking good is tightly interwoven with skinniness. 

The quest to be skinny is a permanent struggle for many, often with constantly shifting goalposts. Many resort to drastic measures to shed some pounds, and there is always another predatory pseudo-scientist entrepreneur there to capitalize on them with another fad diet. 

Diet fads come and go, but the common links between (almost) all of them are their specious science, dubious results, and selfish profiteers. Here are ten of those diet fads that have come and mostly gone, who more often than not shed those pounds at the cost of your health and safety—or at least dignity.

10 Tapeworms

The Tapeworm Diet: The Bad, the Ugly, and the Gross

There is a long, long history of people using tapeworms to lose weight. Tapeworms are worms that survive via parasitism. In this case, they latch onto a section of the inside of someone’s intestine via hooks or suckers and steal a portion of nutrients from their host’s meals. The thought is that, by intentionally swallowing a tapeworm, someone can allow it to feed off their food, causing them to digest fewer calories and lose weight. As it turns out, it just doesn’t work that way.

There are thousands of different tapeworm species, and many won’t even accept humans as hosts. Among those that do, many feed so much they cause malnutrition, diarrhea, and anemia. And even if you happen to find just the right parasite at the sweet spot of calorie consumption, there is a chance the tapeworm, or the offspring it produces inside of you, will exit the gut and infect other parts of your body, causing any number of health issues. This fad diet is a long-lasting one, but is gradually falling out of favor due to, presumably, natural selection.

9 The Clay Diet

People Try Shailene Woodley’s GROSS Clay Diet (Totally Clevver)

The clay diet grew to popularity thanks mainly to endorsements by actresses Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz, which is not a great start. The idea is to consume with your food bentonite clay, a type of volcanic ash that is notoriously absorbent. The clay, allegedly, will bind to unwanted chemicals in your body and help you pass them when you poop a bunch of clay.

Except that is not how any of that works. Bentonite clay is indeed very absorbent, so much so that it binds to and absorbs everything it can, including the nutrients you need to survive (because duh; clay doesn’t magically know what you want to keep and what you don’t). It also tends to swell up in your gut (all that binding), causing distention and even perforating your bowels. In short: no, it is not a good idea to eat dirt, even if someone from Big Little Lies thinks you should.

8 Fletcher Chewing

10 CRAZIEST Diet Trends EVER

Horace Fletcher was a non-doctor from the 1800s who struggled with obesity. He devised a “system” to combat it through… chewing food more. That’s really it. “Fletcherism” as some human doorknobs call it, is the strict adherence to chewing every bite at least 100 times. Fletcher himself was sure to add that the diet worked regardless of what someone eats, so a gallon of ice cream chewed 100 times is fine by Ol’ Fletch. Somehow, his ideas have survived to the modern-day, mainly because neither common sense nor scientific literacy is ubiquitous quite yet.

7 The Baby Food Diet

Baby Food Diet: Good or Bad Idea?

The baby food diet is a pretty good name in that it tells you the whole story on its own. The diet works by replacing meals with baby food. Not every meal, thankfully, just one or two per day. The reasoning behind the diet is simple enough. Baby food contains fairly complete nutrition and few calories. So it should work, right? I mean, yes, in the sense that never breathing again would work in preventing hyperventilation.

Baby food containers typically have 75-100 calories, so of course, replacing a full 2/3 of your meals with only 150-200 calories will result in weight loss. It does this through a mechanism doctors refer to as “starvation,” which removes fat but also removes muscle, bone, and also kills you. The fad was started by celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson and was adopted by celebrities like—shocker—Gwyneth Paltrow.

6 Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet

“Influencers” Caught Promoting The WORST Diet (The Cookie Diet)

You must understand, I desperately want this diet to work. It pains me to write that it doesn’t. Or rather, it doesn’t work for free. There are a ton of stories of this diet working, but with about a dozen major caveats apiece. Here are some of my favorites:

A. They aren’t cookies. Not like you think. Not Oreos, Chips Ahoy, or Keebler’s. They’re more like fiber-bar/muffin hybrids that lack the taste and texture of cookies. Basically: there’s no cookie in the cookie diet. B. They also require a daily multivitamin, because they’re nutritionally a one-trick-pony—all fiber and protein, nothing else. C. They also require a full other meal of assorted meats, fruits, and veggies every day, which defeats the whole purpose of ‘losing weight by just eating cookies.’ D. My favorite. It costs $69.99 every week. That’s $3,640 per year. For fiber bars. Plus you need normal groceries, too. Luckily, it seems their sales are in decline and one of Dr. Siegal’s other health fads has already gone under.

5 The Cabbage Soup Diet

The Cabbage Soup Diet: A Good Way to Lose 10 Pounds in a Week?

It’s easy: you can only eat cabbage soup, but you can eat as much cabbage soup as you want. We can stop right there: any diet that says that you can only eat X but eat as much X as you want is bad for you. Plain and simple. There is no one food, even a combination food, that is enough to provide a healthy existence and maintain energy and general wellbeing. Well, aside from specifically formulated mixtures with a large number of ingredients and complete nutrient profiles, but cabbage soup ain’t that. The American Heart Association listed a number of health issues the cabbage soup diet can cause, and it’s not pretty. It’s not a popular fad anymore, and with good reason.

4 Alkaline Diets

Alkaline Dieting | The Truth about PH Diets

It can be hard to scroll through comment sections in general, but underneath videos about the wonders of “alkaline foods” (many of which aren’t alkaline), you’ll find a nightmare land of pseudoscience, willful ignorance, and anecdotal evidence of how ‘my brother’s friend’s sister’s husband’s butcher’s baker’s candlestick-maker said it totally worked for her.’ It didn’t, and it doesn’t. There is zero science to support the claims that alkaline foods promote weight loss and the claims that they even prevent cancer and other diseases.

There is a nugget of truth to this diet, though it’s accidental. Many foods that are highly acidic happen to be processed, fatty, and/or alcoholic. But those foods are bad because they’re processed, fatty, and/or alcoholic, not because they’re acidic. Yes, cutting those foods will improve your health and likely lead to weight loss. But not because of a made-up mish-mash of sciencey-sounding words. It’s because eating less unhealthy foods and eating more healthy foods is a good thing, which shouldn’t bear mentioning.

3 The Cotton Ball Diet

A Cotton Ball Eating Diet?

Eating cotton balls can kill you. Eating enough cotton balls will certainly kill you. This trend emerged in the modeling industry, where extreme societal expectations of women’s bodies forced them to resort to equally extreme measures. They began eating cotton balls because they allegedly create a feeling of fullness without adding any of those pesky (life-sustaining) calories. But objects with no caloric value are by definition non-food items, meaning no human should ever eat them. Reporting on the matter has died down, so you can only hope that the fad has died down, as well.

2 The Breatharian Diet

The Strange World of Breatharianism

No one should have to say (type) this out loud (quietly): you cannot sustain yourself just by breathing. Air is not a substitute for food. The people that say air is a viable option for nourishment are liars. I know, there are many videos online wherein these people claim to have gone years without food, just by breathing correctly. They are liars. “But what about the breatharian couple?” you say. “They’ve gone decades without air, and they look great!” No, they haven’t, and… well, yes, they look great. But that came from eating healthy food. Then they realized they could get rich from making sensational claims which people would eat up—or not, because it’s air—and shell out money for. So they made those videos. It’s beneath me, all of humanity, and most invertebrate life (except for yellow-jackets. They’re awful, and nothing is beneath them), to dignify the breatharian’ movement’ with any more words.

1 The Master Cleanse (and any cleanse)

If Juice Cleanse Ads Were Honest (Detox, Master Cleanse)

The sad thing is that this diet hasn’t failed in terms of popularity—it’s still popular among those with ‘coincidentally’ nutrient-deficient brains- but it consistently fails to produce lasting results. The master cleanse— essentially drinking only lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and water—became popular because Beyonce allegedly used it to great effect. That is certainly possible, but like all half-thought-out fad diets, the results are either temporary or come at a great cost to personal health.

The master cleanse, as most cleanses, is an attempt to ‘detox’ the body, i.e., remove ‘toxins.’ As a former biologist and researcher, trust me when I say that 99% of people who use the word toxin do not know what it means. Seriously, Merriam Webster/Apple Dictionary App/Oxford English Dictionary that word right now. Toxins, in the way that health-hipsters talk about them, don’t exist. Many molecules are bad for our bodies, of course, but within normal levels, they are naturally filtered out by our livers and kidneys. The best way to help those organs do that is to eat a healthy, balanced diet, get enough sleep, manage your stress, and exercise regularly, not listen to singers with undisclosed endorsements and no scientific background.

fact checked by Jamie Frater