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Fad diets are beyond the Paleo

Quick fixes and gimmicks are no safe way to weight loss and nutrition in the long term; learn to help patients steer clear of them.

The Lemon Detox Diet, the Clay Diet, the Breatharian Diet, the Atkins Diet, the Wheat Belly Diet … the list goes on. Fad diets are not new, and not likely to go away any time soon.

Unfortunately, many Australians rely on books, celebrities and media reports for information and new ideas about diet and nutrition. Such sources often provide minimal context and lack supporting scientific evidence. Trendy diet books and celebrity-endorsed advice tend to focus on a few food groups rather than all five, and that is dangerous.

Nurses are in an ideal position to work with accredited practising dietitians (APDs) to make sure people are aware of and understand the potentially negative effects of following fad diets, especially when they are not medically indicated or necessary. Health professionals can discuss whether any benefits outweigh risks, especially in children, as well as the scientific evidence (or lack thereof) behind any claims.

The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) supports the Australian Dietary Guidelines 2013 and encourages Australians to seek nutrition advice from a qualified health professional. Nurses can help get this message out.

What is a fad diet?

Fad diets are characterised by restrictive food plans, coupled with overly simplistic messages and, often, unrealistic promises. They typically promise fast weight loss, without a scientific basis. Whilst they may provide short-term results, fad diets are generally difficult to maintain over time and can cause serious health problems by eliminating or restricting certain nutrients, foods or food groups.

Diets that encourage fast weight loss usually have little effect on body fat. The initial weight lost on a fad diet is mostly water and lean muscle, which is generally not desirable, and damages metabolism.

Nurses can steer patients away from food and nutrition information or advice that:

• promotes or bans certain foods or food groups

• pushes a one-size-fits-all approach

• promises quick, dramatic or miraculous results

• focuses on short-term changes to eating and exercise habits, that are likely to be unsustainable in the long term

• encourages ‘miracle’ pills, potions or supplements, often promoted as ‘fat burners’ and ‘metabolism boosters’

• makes claims based on a single study or testimonials, rather than a body of scientific evidence

• contradicts the recommendations of the Australian Dietary Guidelines

• contradicts the advice of health professionals.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines – the healthy alternative

In our fast-paced, digital world, people have become used to getting short snippets of information – and this approach is not ideal for communicating complex topics such as nutrition. The consequence of overly simplistic messaging to a mass audience is that the public can misinterpret this to mean nutrition authorities are always changing their minds about how to eat for good health. But this is not the case.

DAA supports the recommendations of the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which advocate a balanced diet based on overall eating patterns, and supplying adequate nutrients, within energy (kilojoule) needs. DAA believes emphasising eating patterns, instead of specific foods and nutrients, is the best approach for healthy eating. Including nutrient-rich choices is important, as is looking at how often extra or discretionary foods are eaten.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines (at eatforhealth.gov.au) were recently revised by the National Health and Medical Research Council, and the updated guidelines were released in 2013. These recommendations, developed by independent experts in the field of nutrition, are based on a large body of scientific evidence (more than 55,000 studies).

APDs adapt the current Australian Dietary Guidelines to assist people in eating a healthy diet, considering their lifestyle, food preferences, food availability, economic factors and current health status. A diet written in a magazine or a book cannot provide this level of expert, tailored advice.

How nurses can help

Good nutrition plays an important part in many aspects of health and should be encouraged by all members of the healthcare team, including nurses. Be aware that misinformation about nutrition and diet is commonplace, and be vigilant about providing patients or clients with accurate information about nutrition, based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which are relevant to most Australians. Assist patients or clients in carefully considering the consequences of fad diets. Refer patients or clients to APDs for a nutrition assessment and individual, expert advice.

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