Truth behind trending diets exposed

19th July 2021 | Clare Collins, Lee Ashton & Rebecca Williams

Diets claiming you’ll lose a huge amount of weight in next to no time pop up on social media relentlessly. But when a new diet promises dramatic results with little effort, or sells miraculous pills, potions or supplements guaranteed to melt body fat or speed a up sluggish metabolism – with testimonials touting success – then be sceptical. We evaluated four current trending diets to see how their claims stack up against the science.

Trending diets: reverse dieting
Reverse dieting might be a big hit with Insta influencers, but its weight-loss effects aren’t supported by science.

Reverse dieting

Often referred to as “the diet after the diet”, reverse dieting involves increasing your energy intake in a gradual, step-wise way after you stop following a reduced energy diet. The reverse diet is popular among bodybuilders and physique athletes trying to return to “normal” eating patterns without gaining extra weight. The theory is that providing a small energy intake surplus may help restore circulating hormone levels and reverse any adverse change in the body’s energy expenditure, restoring it to pre-diet levels.

At the same time, it tries to match energy intake to a person’s usual metabolic rate. This is based on them being at a stable weight. The idea is that you don’t store extra body fat while you eat more calories than you burn.

Anecdotal reports of success using reverse dieting have seen it trending, but there are no studies specifically testing this diet for weight management. Ideally, weight-loss strategies should maximise any reduction in body fat stores while conserving or building muscle mass. One review evaluated studies estimating the number of extra calories needed daily to maximise muscles and minimise body fat stores, while also exercising to build muscles (AKA resistance training). They found limited evidence to guide recommendations.

VERDICT: FAD DIET

Trending diets: the GAPS diet
The first stages of the GAPS diet involve a lot of broth. And not much else.

The GAPS diet

The Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet starts with a strict elimination diet. This is followed by maintenance and reintroduction phases that proponents suggest you follow for several years. There is no scientific evidence to support the website claim that the diet could lift a “toxic fog off the brain to allow it to develop and function properly”.

The GAPS diet wasn’t specifically formulated for weight management. Rather, it’s promoted as a “natural” treatment for people with digestive problems or conditions that affect the brain, such as autism. But the website reports that some people have experienced positive weight changes, either weight loss or weight gain, as needed.

The diet recommends removing all grains, pasteurised dairy, starchy vegetables and refined carbs. You should swap these for fish, eggs, broths, stews and fermented foods. The GAPS protocol also recommends a range of supplements including probiotics, essential fatty acids, digestive enzymes and cod liver oil… which happen to be for sale on the website.

Trending diets: the GAPS diet
Anyone for an enema?

Risky business

The GAPS diet says that increased intestinal permeability, or “holes in your gut” (better known as leaky gut), allow food components and bacteria to enter your blood. It claims this then triggers neurological and psychological conditions including depression, autism and learning difficulties. GAPS also claims to heal a leaky gut by eliminating certain foods that trigger it. This improves digestive and psychological health. Apparently.

Intestinal permeability is increased in some situations. These include pregnancy, during endurance exercise or with the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (eg, aspirin and ibuprofen). But there’s no evidence the GAPS diet regime resolves this.

Further, any bouts of diarrhoea experienced while following the GAPS diet are not “clearing you out”. There’s no scientific evidence that diarrhoea caused by this diet is helpful. Nor is it a “natural cleansing reaction” to move toxins out of your body. Ultimately, the GAPS diet is extremely restrictive and puts you at risk of malnutrition. We strongly advise against it.

VERDICT: FAD DIET

Trending diets: the HCG diet
HCG for weight loss hasn’t been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

The HCG diet

Human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) is the hormone produced during pregnancy. Pregnancy tests check for HCG levels. Fertility treatments also use HCG. Athletes have used HCG supplementation because it promotes testosterone production and builds muscle in males. It’s currently on the World Anti-Doping list of prohibited substances.

The hormone is now marketed as a weight-loss supplement. Older claims are that it could mobilise fat and suppress appetite. The original 1954 HCG trial published in medical journal The Lancet had some positive results. This triggered development of the current HCG diet.

The diet involves taking an HCG supplement, typically as liquid drops. You then also follow a very low-energy diet of a punishing 500 calories (2000 kilojoules) a day. Since the original 1954 research, no studies have replicated the original findings. The conclusion? Any weight loss is due to the large energy deficit. We don’t recommend this diet.

VERDICT: FAD DIET

Trending diets: if it fits your macros IIFYM
IIFYM focuses too much on macronutrients and not enough on vital micronutrients.

IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) diet

Instead of counting calories, the IIFYM diet gets you to count your macronutrients (macros). First you use their online calculator and fill in a range of questions related to your plans to manage your weight. You supply your email and it works out your daily macro needs and sends you a copy. They also offer a personalised program with a money-back guarantee.

You then monitor your daily intake of protein, carbs and fat in grams from food and drinks. Depending on your goals, the diet may or may not include a daily calorie restriction.

There’s no research specifically testing the IIFYM diet. But lots of research has tested whether certain macro ratios are better for weight management. The short answer is no.

A review of 14 popular diets with varying macronutrient ratios published in the British Medical Journal found no specific diet was better than others in achieving weight loss over six months. Across all diets, weight loss diminished by 12 months.

For weight loss, forget trending diets. The key to success is achieving a daily calorie restriction you can live with. Focus on which foods your macros are coming from, rather than the ratio. By eating nutrient-rich foods – vegies, fruit, legumes, whole grains – rather than energy-dense, nutrient-poor processed foods, your calorie intake will be lower.

Counting macros can inform food choices that boost diet quality and help lower calorie intake. But there’s no strong evidence behind this diet.

VERDICT: FAD DIET

For personalised help to check whether you’re meeting your nutritional requirements, consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian. Due to COVID-19, Medicare has introduced rebated telehealth consultations for eligible people.

This article was written by Clare Collins, Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Newcastle; Lee Ashton, postdoctoral research fellow, University of Newcastle; and Rebecca Williams, postdoctoral researcher, University of Newcastle. The article was originally published by The Conversation and has been edited for style and clarity.