Four Recent Diet Fads Portrayed As Balance

Most of us would say we know a fad when we see one, right? We all know about Atkins and 5:2 and raw ’til four and Slimming World. We get that fads aren’t healthy or sustainable and often foster a disordered relationship with food. And yet despite this, there are plenty of fads still emerging in the health and fitness landscape, only now they’re a lot more difficult to decipher. They hide amidst vocal discouragements of faddish practice, between the lines of well-rehearsed statements such as ‘no food is good or bad,’ and ‘clean eating is a loaded term.’ But unpick current philosophies of ‘balance,’ you’ll see that what is said and done are totally contradictory. The advice is anything but balanced and not so far from the unhealthy mentality gurus claim to dispute.

Defining a fad

Let’s explore what a fad is. In food terms, we know it as something that promises a single quick-fix for health or weight loss, usually involving calorie or macronutrient restriction, but can also be applied to so-called magic miracle products, meal plans, fitness programmes and even tips and habits spurred by an explicit or implicit intention to curb hunger and shed fat fast. But the original definition of fad means ‘rules’ – a notion as to a right way of doing something. It’s characterised by an addiction to achieving an exaggerated standard of health and wellbeing, and is often linked in literature to certain manifestations of hypochondria – that is, a need for total knowing and control over the body.

Fads by anti-fadders

Though many new releases in the health sphere are marketed as ‘anti-diet’ books and guides these days, not only is the discourse used within them alarmingly similar to those faddish ‘eat yourself skinny’ manuals sitting dusty on our parents’ shelves, but so are the concepts and principles they teach. They portray food as the enemy and encourage fear and restriction, all whilst rattling off paragraphs and even chapters dedicated to debunking past fads we now mock, so it’s no wonder confusion is rampant. Essentially, these books screw the rules by putting more rules in place.

As I addressed in my previous post on fads, some of these I’ve fallen into as well. The messages of diet culture are prevalent and incessant, and so practicing what it promotes is often not done knowingly. It’s simply a product of unconscious and ingrained cultural beliefs synonymising health and weight loss. But having done a great deal of research around the language, history and motivations behind diet fads, needless to say I’m pretty determined to shut them down for good.

The fads

1) ‘Flex’ bowls

Flex bowls, which arose from the practice of ‘flexible dieting,’ were a pretty big thing in 2016. They’re part of the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) regimen, which promotes that a person can eat whatever they like, so long as it meets a daily macronutrient requirement. The approach aims to elicit optimal body composition (optimal in an arbitrary sense because low body fat percentage isn’t necessarily the construct of a functional body), rather than to deliver positive health outcomes.

The particular issue with flex bowls’ role in the diet is that they’re rooted in a deeply disordered attitude towards food. Essentially, flex bowls are flexible dieter’s ‘excuse’ to have dessert. At the end of the day, all surplus macronutrients are totalled up and put to good use in a weighed and controlled indulgence. Anything and everything goes in this instance. For hardcore IIFYM-ers, you might find bowls loaded up with ice cream, cereal, chocolate, cake, the whole works (don’t believe me? Check out #flexbowl on Instagram). What can occur consequently is restriction throughout the day followed by a glorified subjective binge in the evening. Of course, this isn’t to say that everyone falls into such extreme behaviour in IIFYM, but it’s the premise of flex bowls and the language around them that puts them on the spectrum of fad mentality.

Flex bowls are a means of justification, that is, a reason or rule to indulge. You’ve been ‘good’ all day, had your three tupperware boxes of boiled rice, chicken and broccoli, probably hit a new bench press PR that demands a refeed, and now it’s your one opportunity to enjoy the other side of ‘balance.’ One blogger wrote ‘flex bowls allow people to have a treat without putting them off-track.Another said ‘It’s just maths, although cheating is how you win.’ The mentality is calculated and one of reward/punishment. You gain favour if you manage to get to the evening with enough macros for a big treat, and the importance and value of food is minimised to stats on an app.

The bloggers go on to say ‘if you aren’t tracking your macros, it can be dangerous because some flex bowls can be calorie dense‘ A clear example of fear of unplanned and uncontrolled consumption of food and calories. What’s more, the overarching premise of flex bowls ignores our physiological signals. What if you’re not hungry for dessert? What if you’re still hungry after your allotted portion? Meeting your macros is the priority and obligation overrides intuition.

Creating a rule, label or reason to eat dessert is indicative a diet, not of balance.

2) Volume eating

Some call it the secret to eating more and losing weight. Really, it’s just a surefire way to make food soggy and taste a bit grim.

Volume eating is creating big portions of food without adding calories. Typically, meals are bulked out with low calorie ingredients, such as grated courgette, cauliflower or cucumber, egg whites, and even water, ice or air if you’re really clever. It’s dieters’ trick to feeling satisfied on a calorie-restricted diet, and also the fad responsible for last year’s disastrous courgette shortage…

Of course, there is a positive in volume eating. Overall, it promotes a higher consumption of vegetables which can never be a bad thing and is the reason why I’m not adverse to it in some respects. But again, its the execution and incentive that is concerning. Volume eating is a very purposeful tactic to trick the brain into feeling full, rather that any intention to meet a nutritional requirement. As one blogger and bikini competitor writes, ‘it’s all in the strategy.’

There’s an unstated demonisation of calories and carbohydrates in volume eating, as these are typically what volumising ingredients aim to mimic. For instance, bloggers recommend mixing grated cauliflower into rice, stiring courgette into oats, for no better reason than to make it look and feel like more. It’s not enough to simply have a portion of veg on the side – some stir-fried greens, roasted cauliflower, grilled courgette, nicely seasoned and dressed. They have to be hidden, masked and flavourless, although the truth of that last requirement is arguable. For anyone not attuned to volume eating, watered down icy smoothies and cauliflower oats are easy to detect.

The fad exists to relieve the guilt of eating big portions and without appearing greedy, reflective of the strong oppression that exists in diet culture.

If you’re hungry and want to eat more, just eat more and never feel guilty for fuelling yourself as much as you need. You might just find however that actually, if you’re enjoying food for flavour, eating mindfully and savouring it, you feel as satisfied as you would if you’d had twice the size of something bigger but bland.

3) High protein supreme

Since the fitness craze began, protein has been evangelised as the key to sculpting a glorious physique, whilst the other macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats, have taken a lot of the blame for being the culprit of weight gain and poor results. King protein, on the other hand, has gone from simply being an important component of a healthy diets to essential in every meal and snack. It’s even reached the point where you’ll find protein fortified chocolate, protein fortified bread and naturally protein-rich food such as yoghurt, cheese and nut butters fortified with, you guessed it, protein.

The addition of protein to chocolate, ice cream and bread in particular signifies how this fad masquerades as a passage to balance. Previously, these have been marked as forbidden sins for those trying to stay on track, but with the addition of protein, suddenly they’re redeemed. It’s a remarkable example of how the way we perceive certains foods have a huge effect on our attitude and consumption habits. You probably wouldn’t consider Nutella pancakes a health food, nor want to eat them every day, yet chocolate protein pancakes with ‘prutella’ (protein Nutella) seem to be a daily favourite in the fitspo realm.

High protein means that treats can be justified for supporting an aesthetic goal. As one blogger writes, ‘with protein rich products, you can enjoy your favourite food without ruining your hard work.’ But, as is often the case with food fads, it also becomes an excuse to eat more of something than you would want or need to if you were just perceiving food as food. Therefore, whilst it may seem like such treats are a practice of balance, they’re typically a consequence of deprivation. It isn’t about fulfilling a physical requirement for protein but rather trying to stave off a mental craving that would be remedied by a less restrictive approach to food.

4) 80/20

The 80/20 rule is actually a difficult one to argue against. With a view that 80% of your diet should be made up of ‘healthy’ food, and 20% should be ‘treats,’ it doesn’t restrict food groups, necessitate meticulous calculations and is overall a fairly sustainable approach to take. However, it still presupposes a food dichotomy that does not match up with the way that nutrition actually works.

In nutritional terms, food is neither good nor bad.  Food is a compilation of chemicals that the body processes to support various functions. Some food is more nutritionally dense than others and therefore has greater benefits, whilst others have properties that, when consumed in excess, can have a negative effect on the body. But it’s really very difficult judge to what degree food is good or bad because food is never eaten in isolation. For instance, say you eat a burger with potato wedges, or a salad with a smidgen of sugar in the dressing. Which side of the 80/20 dichotomy do these meals fall? Full of vegetables and nutrient rich, or high in fat and sugar raising the risk of heart disease? Does ‘good’ negate ‘bad’ or ‘bad’ negate ‘good?’ t’s just not that simple.

Because of the vague definition of 80/20, you run into the problem of how to ascribe which foods make up what part of the diet. Some online guides for 80/20 suggest 80% vegetables, 20% everything else, which is more likely to be a recipe for deficiency than a balanced diet. Another says 80% unprocessed, 20% processed, which is not an achievable target, nor is it particularly clear what this means (Read more: Is processed food really that that bad for you?). And, of course, the final suggestion for defining 80/20 is 80% ‘clean/real’ and 20% dirty/fake. Arbitrary and ideological labels that could be taken any which way and do little more than demonise food without reason.

But are fads in balance doing any harm?

Fads have certainly evolved since the days of cabbage soup and cotton balls, but with the bodies on Instagram showcasing their success, it’s easy to see why we still buy into the promises of policed approaches to food. But, as with all diets, these do not have long term success, are likely to result in weight cycling and make individuals more susceptible to disordered eating patterns. Even so-called flexible diets such as those described above have proven similar negative physiological and psychological health outcomes to rigid dieting.

An attempt to quantify a dietary ideal, even one which accommodates for treats, is still allocating a rule that leaves very little room for renegotiation. They diverge from an intuitive approach to food and enforce a prescriptive mentality upon a movement that is meant to represent freedom. Of course, balance is self-defined, but it should never come from a place of control.


Oxford English Etymological Dictionary – Fad  (1834)

Is intuitive eating the same as flexible dietary control?

Rigid dietary control, flexible dietary control, and intuitive eating: Evidence for their differential relationship to disordered eating and body image concerns

Maxine Ali