While January used to be the time of year when fad diets were at their peak, it doesn't seem as if there's a season for them anymore. Whether it's the South Beach diet, the Zone diet, Atkins, Paleo or the raw food diet, some fad diets have come and gone, while others have spawned equally outlandish copycats.
The ketogenic diet is a notable example, birthing the Ideal Protein diet.
Although the ketogenic diet has legitimate roots as a treatment for epilepsy, the Ideal Protein diet was created for significantly less therapeutic reasons. The protocol, as it is referred to by its parent company, was founded by an entrepreneur named Olivier Benloulou and a general practitioner and self-described "nutritional expert" named Dr. Tran Tien Chanh. On the company's website, Benloulou states: "our focus is not and will never be the mere sale of weight loss options and products, but rather the global epidemic that our medically developed protocol addresses."
The Ideal Protein diet is advertised as a "four-phase ketogenic weight and lifestyle management protocol medically developed and based on validated science for safe weight loss." Words and phrases like "medically developed," "validated science" and "safe" can mislead the consumer into believing a diet is backed by strong evidence and it can be difficult to determine the validity of claims when broad descriptors are being used, but there are red flags to look out for in evaluating the legitimacy of this diet and others.
Red flag #1: the diet emphasizes weight loss. While the Ideal Protein diet is advertised as being about "so much more than just losing weight," the first phase of the diet needs to be followed until 100 per cent of your desired weight loss is achieved. If the diet is about more than just losing weight, why is "losing weight" a step in itself? The diet is also heavily promoted in many weight loss clinics. The promise of weight loss is usually the hook to get consumers to buy into a fad diet.
Red flag #2: food categories are eliminated or vilified. Phase 1 of Ideal Protein allows the "dieter" (as they are referred to) to have eight ounces of protein at dinner, four cups of selected vegetables throughout the day and unlimited raw vegetables and lettuce, along with three Ideal Protein packaged foods. Phases 2 adds in one eight-ounce portion of protein and takes away an Ideal Protein food and phase 3 does the same once again. The "dieter" is limited to only these food categories and cannot consume dairy products in phases 1 and 2, unless of course they are in the form of prepackaged Ideal Protein products. When a diet advises against consuming a major food category or promotes a small number of foods as being the keys to success, those are red flags. No food is inherently good or bad and no single food category, whether grains, dairy or other, is crucial to weight loss.
Red flag #3: your success depends on a financial commitment. Every phase of the four-phase Ideal Protein protocol incorporates Ideal Protein foods, which are produced by the company and peddled by "authorized clinics" across North America. When a company forces you to buy their food or supplements rather that showing you how to make healthy choices, they're not teaching you to be independent. In fact, the company refers to their meal replacement products as an "amazing way to help you sustain your weight loss results over your life course." In other words, they're pushing a lifelong connection to the diet and a never-ending financial commitment on the consumer.
Red flag #4: the diet is rigid and unwavering. Ideal Protein describes the protocol as "an uncompromised personal transformation Protocol" stating that "deviating will only inhibit your results." The company's website then refers the participant to a "Value of health" video on YouTube. If a diet advises the participant to override feelings of hunger and fullness and signifies deviation from the diet as a sign of failure or a signal that you've "lost your way," that's a red flag. Ideal Protein will only continue to make money off a participant if people continue to remain connected to their diet. Shaming the "dieter" into coming back to that rigid regime does not allow them to be empowered and independent in making decisions for themselves.
Red flag #5: advice is based on testimonials. While the Ideal Protein program is very good at claiming to be "medically developed" and based on "validated science" and using words and claims to give an air of validity to their products, they don't appear to be as good at providing actual evidence and instead rely on personal testimonials. This is a big red flag for a fad diet. The consumer can look at these testimonials and relate to the stories being told, while idealizing the results being promised.
Red flag #6: salespersons are disguised as "counsellors" or "coaches." Representatives for a fad diet often refer to themselves as "counsellors" or "coaches" to give the consumer the feeling of being cared for and advised by an individual who is qualified to give advice. Anyone providing diet advice should not be making a commission based on your purchases. Unfortunately, in addition to recruiting "passionate partners," Ideal Protein recruits pharmacists, doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists, among other healthcare professionals, giving their program legitimacy. Although these people may be experts in their fields, that does not mean they're experts in diet and nutrition. When fad diets use healthcare professionals to push a product, it can be very difficult for the consumer to know whose advice to trust.
Red flag #7: The diet is not supported by registered dietitians. While the Ideal Protein diet touts the expertise of certain healthcare practitioners, you'd be hard-pressed to find a dietitian selling these products or promoting the diet in general. This is because in British Columbia registered dietitians are subject to marketing bylaws, standards of practice and a code of ethics. These standards are in place to protect the public from misleading information and product promotion. When promoting services and products, dietitians are expected to ensure the marketing is truthful, accurate, verifiable and evidence-informed, meaning that claims are based on objective and scientifically sound evidence. A dietitian cannot create unjustified expectations about the results that can be achieved with a product or diet and we cannot take actions that result in personal gain, such as accepting fees or other benefits from product or service sponsors based on a client's purchases. In other words, it would be unethical for a dietitian to promote the Ideal Protein diet.
One of the biggest reasons fad diets increase in popularity is because they feed off what people want. When family, friends and even your doctor are recommending a diet it can be extremely difficult to buck the trend and choose your own path. It might even seem as if there is no harm in trying a popularized diet but there is the potential for negative effects, which is a very frustrating aspect of these diets. Not only could you be wasting money and time committing to what's required for "success" but your metabolism could be affected, you could have nutrient deficiencies, you could lose muscle mass, have decreased immunity, decreased bone density, and the list goes on.
Unfortunately, weight loss programs are not regulated in Canada, so it's important for a consumer to be able to spot sensationalized claims and other hallmarks of a fad diet. While I've only listed a small proportion of the questionable claims and statements made by Ideal Protein, the red flags listed here can help you to identify even more in this and other diets-of-the-moment and allow you to make informed decisions.
-- Kelsey Leckovic is a registered dietitian with Northern Health working in chronic disease management.