Fad diets are simple but not optimal, psychologist says

A prepared meal from Evolve Paleo Chef, which caters to Paleo dieters.
A prepared meal from Evolve Paleo Chef, which caters to Paleo dieters. File photo

A Kansas State University professor says today’s fad diets have gained popularity because of their simplicity.

Paleo, vegan, gluten-free, low-carb and plant-based diets all restrict certain foods.

“You’re just cutting out whole categories of food, which is not the best way to get optimal health in most cases, but it’s an easy focus,” said Edgar Chambers, director of the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University.

Although simple in theory, those diets often test a person’s mental stamina to keep from eating foods he or she enjoys.

Chambers, who studies eating psychology and behavior, said the mental deprivation often pushes people off the diets. But he said some dieters who follow restrictive lifestyles receive pleasure from the thought that what they’re doing will improve their health or physical appearance.

But he said that kind of pleasure can be misleading.

“If you’re not getting a wide range of nutrients, then you can sustain that psychologically for a long period of time, but ultimately, you’re going to damage your body,” Chambers said.

He said it’s easier for people to understand how to nix an entire category of food rather than learn to properly maintain a variety.

He said he sees My Plate, the federal government’s new version of the food pyramid, as too complex. It varies by age, gender and weight.

“When you say, ‘Well, you can have two servings,’ they say, ‘I don’t know what that is,’ ” he said. “That’s why it’s easier to say, ‘Don’t eat this, don’t eat that.’ ”

Chambers said another problem is using ambiguous language, such as the word “moderation.”

He said one reason fad diets are more popular is the wider availability of food options.

“In the city of Wichita in the 1960s, there probably was one organic food store, and nobody else carried that,” he said.

Now people can buy organic food at Dillons, Wal-Mart or any other grocery store.

The terms “sugar addiction” and “food addiction” become widely used because of food’s impact on a person’s physical appearance, he said.

“In some ways, food is kind of an easy target,” he said. “It’s a way to label things that are positive or negative in people’s lives, and when it’s negative, they like to say it’s an addiction.”

Sugar releases dopamine, which causes pleasure, much like drugs, alcohol and sex. But just because it causes pleasure, he said, doesn’t mean it equates to addiction.

“A painting that you’re looking at, if you love it, will release dopamine,” he said. “Are looking at paintings you like addicting? I wouldn’t think so.”

Reach Gabriella Dunn at 316-268-6400 or gdunn@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @gabriella_dunn.