THE FOOD ISSUE
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Your fad diet is going to fail

By Greg Stevens

Fad diets are terrible. There are two ways you can identify a fad diet: First, it promises drastic results in a short period of time; second, it recommends something radically different from the normal, healthy balanced diet that medical experts and nutritionists always recommend.

A good, healthy balanced diet is one in which you consume a variety of foods that contain a mixture of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, and it includes a healthy portion of vegetables. It is a diet where you never starve yourself, but you don’t eat more calories than you burn through exercise. A good healthy diet is not something you do for a week or a month in order to fit into a dress or get a visible six-pack for your next beach vacation. Instead, it’s a long-term way to live your life that achieves a long-term fit and healthy body.

Fad diets are the opposite: They promise fast results by suggesting radically unbalanced nutrition. Examples include: Don’t eat any bread or sugar, and you can lose weight even if you eat a pound of bacon every day! Eat and drink nothing but grapefruit juice for a week to “cleanse” your system! Only eat certain foods based on your blood type! Only eat five bites of food at every meal! Only eat these very expensive cookies that we will sell you and promise they will give you all the nutrition you need!

The variations are nearly endless online, and most of them are blatantly unhealthy. So why are they so popular? Medical professionals and nutritionists have wrung their hands over this for decades and have tried desperately to educate the public. From WebMD to familydoctor.org, you can see professionals struggling with the question: Why do people keep falling for fad diets?

The answers people come up with are exactly what you would expect. People want a quick fix. People care more about short-term results than long-term health. People are lazy and want short-cuts. I have explained it by saying people are looking for magic: the quick solution so they can avoid making those boring life choices that result in long-term greater health.

But there is something that all of these explanations miss: the most persistent and popular fad diets are more than just quick and easy. They have all of the ingredients of a viral media campaign.

When someone tells you, “I do Paleo,” it is a way of saying, “I’m smart, because my diet is based on evolutionary theory!”

Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has spent years studying what makes things go viral on the internet. He explains in his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, that there are certain features that popular and shareable phenomena all have in common.

Not surprisingly, the most well-known fad diets share all of the key features of viral marketing campaigns. For example, one of the features of viral media is that it contains some kind of special information or in joke that allows people to feel like they are “in the know.” This creates a kind of social currency that allows people to feel smart and superior, and it encourages them to pass it around in order to bring their friends “into the fold.” As Berger explained in an interview with the New Yorker: “Memes like LOLcats, I think, are a perfect example of social currency, an insider culture or handshake… When your mom sees an LOLcat, she has no idea what it is.”

The most persistent and well-known fad diets all follow this pattern. The Paleo diet, for example, had an entire pseudo-scientific explanation for why it recommends certain foods. The story goes like this: Most of our evolutionary history, we ate like cavemen and we weren’t obese. Our bodies evolved based on the caveman diet, therefore it must be good for us. Recently, our diet has changed, and people are obese. So, if you start eating like a caveman you will lose weight.

As science, it’s total crap. For one thing, it is based on a misunderstanding of how evolution works. Moreover, the fact that cavemen were not obese had more to do with food scarcity and the need to run from predators than it did with the specific nutritional makeup of their meals. But the explanation sounds just convincing enough that it allows people to feel really smart by following it. And because “eating like a caveman” means cutting out the pasta, pop and beer, most people do see some results from it.

When someone tells you, “I do Paleo,” it is a way of saying, “I’m smart, because my diet is based on evolutionary theory!”

The same mechanism is at work with the Atkins diet. Get into a debate with any Atkins enthusiast and ask him why he thinks he can eat an entire bucket of processed cheese and still lose weight, and he will immediately reply with: “I understand the biology! When you don’t eat carbs the body goes into ketosis, and will burn the fat.”

Ketosis is a real biological process, but it isn’t magical. It will cause your body to turn to fat for its energy, but it won’t help you if you consume 6000 calories in a day and burn only 2000. What makes the Atkins concept so appealing, though, is that people are convinced that they have tapped into special scientific knowledge that most people don’t know or understand. Being part of the “Atkins family” means being a member of a group that is in the know, and understand more than regular people.

People care more about short-term results than long-term health.

A related feature of viral media that Berger identified is the ability to tell a story. The most popular and persistent fad diets a compelling backstory or explanation that people can latch on to. Paleo is more than just reducing grains and processed foods; it’s eating like a caveman! Even very simple fad diets, like the “eat nothing but grapefruit” diet, usually tell some story about how some molecule in the food will “cleanse your system” of toxins.

When fad diets don’t come with a built-in storyline, they are never as popular. Two more ridiculous minor fad diets include the “5 bite diet” and the “baby food diet.” These are easy to remember, but not as fun to prosthelytize. Simply telling someone to “eat very little” or “only eat baby food” doesn’t have the emotional pull of a full-on pseudo-scientific backstory.

Finally, perhaps the most important ingredient that promotes viral sharing is a positive, feel-good message. Berger’s research found that videos with a feel-good message were always more likely to be reshared on Facebook and Twitter than videos with a negative message. The most popular fad diets have also keyed into this important feature of human psychology. They always focus on what you can eat, rather than what you cannot eat. Or, in cases such as the Atkins diet, they focus on “perks” like being able to eat as much as you want of one kind of food to make up for restrictions in other places.

How can medical professionals get people to improve their health, give up their fad diets, and eat properly? The unfortunate reality is they may just have to find their own viral marketing strategy for proper nutrition. Despite the best of intentions, professional and accurate nutritional advice is universally boring. Eat in moderation. Eat variety. Exercise more. Yawn.

Is there a way to add social currency to eating right? Is there a way to create a novel and feel-good story that motivates people to follow good long-term nutritional habits? You have to applaud First Lady Michelle Obama for trying.

It would surely move the health of our country in the right direction if only we can find a way to turn “eating a balanced meal on a regular basis for the rest of your life” into the next big fad diet.

Photo via Magnus D/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Rob Price