It’s unfortunate that I even have to write this post at all, because in a perfect world, no one would be trying to scam people using fear mongering as bait. Just five short minutes on social media will make you realize that there’s a world of nutrition ugliness out there in the form of fad diets, ‘gurus’, and utterly unqualified people giving everybody idiotic (and often dangerous) advice. 

It’s particularly maddening for someone like me, a dietitian who has basically dedicated my career to helping people feel good about food and eating. I also have to undo all the shitty information that my clients and readers have been fed by these charlatans and believe me, that’s no small task.

Most fad diets are brought into this world by people who appear at first glance to be completely legit; they are doctors (or call themselves doctors), they’re celebrities who have large online followings, or they’re just random people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about but benefit from the confirmation bias that is today’s internet. All too often, they make money off unsuspecting and desperate people wanting to make positive change in their lives. So sad. 

If you’ve ever been sucked into believing diet and nutrition fairytales on the internet (and beyond) and never want it to happen again, here are some telltale red flags that you should watch for. One or more of these signs should trigger suspicion with whatever plan you’re looking at.

The promise of being part of a select group of people who are ‘lucky’ enough to know a special secret about health and nutrition.

You know that warm, privileged feeling you get when someone tells you a secret? 

We all want to feel special, which is in part how some people get sucked into actual cults. 

Learning a ‘special secret’ of nutrition that the rest of the world doesn’t know or that someone is intentionally ‘hiding’ from us is a promise that’s used to get people to sign up for 

Especially coveted by groups who have an axe to grind with ‘Big Food’ or ‘Big Pharma’ – the use of those phrases are, in themselves, red flags – this promise also comes with an air of superiority; you’ll be ‘better’ and ‘smarter’ than people who don’t choose to follow this particular eating plan.  

Something to sell that either ‘helps’ you on the diet or, is mandatory to make the diet work.

Also, diets that include expensive foods like grass-fed meat, all-organic produce, or French butter that’s $12 a pound.

Let’s just put it this way: you do not ever, ever, ever need expensive food to lose weight or to be healthy. You do not ever, ever, ever, need supplements to lose weight or to be healthy.

When someone has a product to sell along with their diet program, that is the number-one red flag for me, and it should be for you, too.

Never let someone convince you that you won’t be successful in life or in nutrition if you don’t buy some expensive food or supplement, because not only is that completely false, it’s also really disingenuous and should show you right then and there what that person’s character is.

I have been a dietitian for twenty years. Never in my entire career have I ever seen a person require expensive food or pills or drinks, in order to be healthy. 

Even though my lawyer tells me otherwise, I still think that a doctor/pharmacist or any person in a position of trust, who is supposed to be impartial, who sells their own line of supplements is operating under a conflict of interest. As an RD, I need to disclose my possible conflicts to clients and offer a range of options – not just the product that I represent. That’s the law…at least for me. 

Also, any doctor or dietitian who sells patients on only one diet without being open minded to other ways of eating, is also not doing their job. There’s more than one proper way of eating well, and not every diet works for everyone. Professionals should know that and if they don’t, look for someone else. 

Dubious claims that aren’t backed up by science or, are backed up by poor research.

This is how fad diets and their supporters make you think they’re completely legit: by getting all science-y and hoping that you don’t understand what they’re talking about. I’ve seen it all: whether it’s hormones, metabolism, cellular biology, food chemistry, or anything else that’s slightly complicated, some people straight-up twist the truth to suit whatever they want you to believe. The problem is that most laypeople don’t know a good research study from a lame one, and they’re also intimidated with science and physiology. Perhaps the best example of this is Dr. ‘Plant Paradox’ Stephen Gundry. During my review of his shitty diet, I saw him cite completely irrelevant studies to try and prove a point. Meaning, the studies he used didn’t  have anything to do with what he was talking about. That doesn’t even make sense, except when people buy into his crap without fact checking, it actually does. He’s laughing all the way to the bank.

I also get a lot of people writing me to say that even though their diet has no research behind it, it has a lot of testimonials to speak for it. My response is always the same: testimonials aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, and they’re often fake. Do not run your diet, health, or any part of your life on the stuff in testimonials. They’re the lowest form of proof that something works. 

A call to action to shun or attack others who aren’t on this particular diet.

The carnivore and Low Carb, High Fat (otherwise known as #LCHF) diets are particular bad at this, but there are other radical diets that do it too. Launching vicious attacks on social media, food shaming others, and openly questioning the efficacy and morality of someone’s diet in a passive-aggressive or outright aggressive way isn’t cool. If a diet or group requires or asks this of you directly or indirectly, turn and run.  

Isolating yourself from the rest of the world because they don’t choose to follow your diet is the worst life sabotage your could subject yourself to. You’ll need those friends and family, trust me; live and let live. Cut out the superior attitude and holier-than-thou bullshit. 

Newsflash: behaving like this also makes you look like a complete asshat to everyone on social media, and that stuff lives forever online. That is, far longer than you’re going to be on that diet. 

Eliminating an entire food group or type as a blanket requirement.

This is sort of the calling card of all the fad diets: what food should you eliminate for which imaginary reason? Would it be legumes, for the lectins? Soy, for the hormones? Dairy for the pus? Wheat because of the gluten? How about almonds, nightshades, fruits, vegetables, all grains, and sugar? Like, all at once! 

While it’s true that some people may benefit from removing different foods from their diets, these are people with actual intolerances or allergies. A fad diet that says X food is terrible for everybody is betting that you’re going to fall prey to their fear factor and hop on the diet bandwagon, making money for whoever is promoting it. 

I know I said it above, but I’m going to say it again: different diets work for different people. We’re not all the same, and think about it: are you going to eliminate these foods from your life forever? If you don’t really need to, I highly recommend that you don’t. Life is meant to be enjoyed, and so is food. 

Using defamatory or judgemental language to describe healthy foods AKA fear mongering.

Using words like, ‘toxic’; ‘poison’; deadly; ‘bad’; ‘clean’; ‘real’, and others like those to describe food is meant to manipulate your feelings towards food and eating to suit someone’s agenda. Also really crappy are diets that talk about ‘willpower’, and/or make you feel ‘weak’ if you fail at them. Whole30 is the best example of this sort of stuff.

Food should never be scary, it should never be a judgement, it should never involve morality. If someone has to scare you into eating their diet, then clearly they’re selling something you don’t want.

Move on. 

A personal sob story and transformation, especially as the impetus to create a diet and teach others about it.

Read the intro in a lot of diet books: you’ll get the story of the author’s ‘magical’ transformation after which they felt entirely compelled to write a diet book and $ell a million copie$ ju$t to help people like them. How philanthropic! And I’l bet they know a terrific secret about nutrition and health, too! Just read the book to find out! (or see point #1 in this article)

Just because someone went through some personal transformation doesn’t make them an expert on nutrition and health. They may have changed their life by changing their diet, and that’s great…for them. Charisma is magnetic, and some of these stories can be moving and thrilling. They’re meant to be that way, because they’re meant to $ell book$. And diet$. And product$ associated with said diet. Don’t fall for what amounts to a testimonial (see point #3 for how I feel about testimonials). 

The best diet is the one that works for YOU!