Francie Ahrens/Daily

Content warning: Mentions of disordered eating and dieting.

Disclaimer: Although this is a piece about dieting, I have decided to avoid specifics as much as possible in order to prevent even the smallest glorification of these diets. They do not work, and can be extremely unsafe. To those seeking dietary information, please consult a health professional. 

Over the past few weeks, I was swept over with a perpetual case of brain fog — I found myself incapable of doing the most simple tasks: watching lecture videos, cooking a meal or figuring out my plans for the day. What I didn’t realize was that my diet had been on a slow but steady decline over the course of the year. I was cooking three hearty meals a day last summer, and now I found myself wading through the days operating only on a latte with oat milk, a Bagel Fragel and a poorly seasoned bowl of pasta. 

As the quality of the food I ingested degraded, so did my mental state. It’s not a shock to me; as someone who’s been preaching healthy eating habits for years on end, I’m quite sensitive to the changes brought on by a meager diet. I’ll admit, I also bought into the craze of diet culture in my high school years, seeking some kind of validation for disciplining my eating habits. But, it was all a placebo — looking back on it now, I was nearly destroying my body.

Sometime between the end of junior year and summertime, I decided to try out the keto diet for three whole weeks. It was grueling and mentally taxing, as I foolishly resisted supplementing my body with the nutrients it desperately needed. The result was abysmal. I spent the first 19 days shoving every possible carb away from me, and when my body finally went into ketosis, I couldn’t keep it up anymore. I always felt like I was only a few steps away from slipping up, perpetually on the edge of losing a fight against myself.

The keto diet was originally developed as a form of epilepsy therapy. (Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work at all.) Then sometime around 2019, it became a cultural phenomenon among influencers. It was touted as an effective diet among “diet doctors,” though I’d argue it’s dangerous to follow what anyone with those credentials says. The diet consists of foods that are very low in carbs and high in fats.

The main reason I felt so ill was because carbohydrates are necessary for the human body, and two of our most important organs, the liver and the brain, need carbohydrates like carnivores need meat. Carbohydrates are processed into glucose by the liver, and two-thirds of all glucose gained is stored for use in the liver, while the last third is rerouted elsewhere, but mostly to the brain and muscle tissues. It’s no wonder I was experiencing such intense brain fog when I was on the keto diet — my brain was nearly shriveling away.

Rather than researching the actual details of the keto diet, I delved headfirst into a lifestyle that I knew nothing about. This was due to the fact that I was advertised the benefits of the keto diet, and never the shortcomings, by social media influencers.

It seems that diet culture has maintained an iron grip on society ever since the rise of social media and “Instagram influencers,” particularly affecting younger women. Though fad diets like the apple cider vinegar diet and the lemonade diet originated in the 1940s and 50s, social media has only facilitated the growth of fad diets.

Social media appeals to us by distorting reality, and when 90% of 18-29 year olds Americans claim to use some form of social media daily, a lot of our perceptions about the world originate from this influence-mangled circus. Social media influencers in particular are major factors in how we view ourselves — we tend to compare ourselves to social media icons much more than celebrities, so they pose a significant influence on our personal body image.

And since the early 20th century, the diet industry has been profiting off of the insecurities of vulnerable individuals in order to sell more protein shakes and weight-loss pills. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it bears the burden of repeated emphasis. 

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My tendencies to engage in destructive eating habits were dispelled only after I adopted veganism. I moved in with a roommate who was vegan (hi Laine), and after years of deliberating about going vegan in order to correct my thyroid issues, it felt like I had been gifted a golden opportunity to readjust my perspective on what a “diet” really means.

Once my options of food had been reduced from almost anything to virtually nothing, cooking actually became easier. My dinner plate became restricted to mostly produce, tofu and the occasional tuber, so I had to work harder to eat sufficiently. I started putting more thought into my meals, frequently re-evaluating the quality of the fast food available at chain restaurants. 

In my experience, transitioning to veganism is somewhat equivalent to an uphill hike in the Sierra Nevada. It took many years and many hours of research for me to commit to something that fit my body’s needs. In contrast, fad diets often take the public by storm, sweeping up customers and luring them into purchasing overpriced bars and shakes and everything in between. They fade just as quickly as they appear, often debunked by science and social media-proficient nutritionists

What makes fad diets so appealing to the untrained eye is they tend to appeal more to our vanity than our desire to stay healthy. Programs usually last for weeks or months, but professional nutritionists argue that a proper approach to a change in diet requires permanently altering your lifestyle, not just a portion of your eating habits. Additionally, fad diets are centered on aesthetics, utilizing attractive figures such as well-known celebrities in the media to force potential dieters to create a subliminal association between the fad and the sex appeal. “They’re more motivated by wanting to change the way they look than their health,” comments dietician Robyn Osborn, R.D., Ph.D. 

Surface-level appeal through mass marketing makes you think looking good is synonymous with feeling good. However, this shallow approach doesn’t stop questionable individuals from gaining a significant amount of social media attention for their wacky diets.

Erica Dobeck is a TikTok influencer who gained recognition due to her “organ-based diet,” which includes but is not limited to raw lamb liver, beef-and-berry smoothies and mystery-animal raw heart

According to Erica herself, she was a longtime vegan until a zinc deficiency forced her to incorporate more meat into her diet, but she also admits, “No I don’t really enjoy eating (raw organs), but I do enjoy the benefits it brings me. So it’s worth sacrificing taste to feel really good. … I don’t get a sense of euphoria when it’s cooked, because nutrients are lost when cooking.”

The latter sentiment is untrue and lacks evidentiary substance, as the amount of nutrients retained in meat varies by cooking method. But vegans and vegetarians, such as Dobeck, are often nutrient deficient, especially in these four nutrients: calcium, vitamin B12, iron and iodine. It’s no wonder she felt awful — nutrient deficiencies are known to cause fatigue.

Alyse Parker is also an ex-vegan who committed to a 30-day challenge fittingly titled “the carnivore diet,” consisting of only meat, seafood and eggs. She, too, initially sought out an all-meat diet when she began to experience a decrease in cognitive function, so she claims she “wanted to just try something new and see how my body would respond to this.”

Parker has stated that she doesn’t plan to stay a full-time carnivore and only committed to the diet temporarily, which is relieving to hear as many registered dietitians (RD) repeatedly preach the fact that an all-meat diet leads to severe deficiencies of many nutrients.

In order to obtain the most reliable information about the veracity of Dobeck’s and Parker’s claims, I interviewed two graduate students at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, both of whom are studying and assisting with research in the field of nutritional sciences. 

Lindsay Green, a student in the Nutritional Sciences program with a concentration in dietetics, became interested in nutrition during her undergraduate career, as she began to notice how much a well rounded diet improved her overall energy levels and mental health. 

Her colleague, Jane Schmid, who originally majored in biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience at the University, is now continuing her studies as a masters student in nutritional sciences. Nutrition became a primary focus in her life as an undergraduate student as well, but “for all the wrong reasons,” as she used to struggle with disordered eating — nonetheless, as she started to recover, her passion for nutrition was maintained.

When asked their opinion on fads such as the carnivore diet, Schmid and Green were both apprehensive about their safety. 

“From an evolutionary perspective, we’re not built to digest raw meat,” Green explains. “That’s nutritionally not great for us.” 

Both addressed the fact that meals similar to the raw-beef-and-berry smoothie often lack important nutrients, such as healthy fats, fiber and an adequate number of calories.

Schmid adds, “You’re often missing out on a key group of nutrients,” and urges people to stay wary of diets that ask them to cut out entire food groups. 

Fad diets that are based in fiction and not fact do more harm than good, especially when the people advertising these diets and diet products are inadequately educated about the nuances of the human diet.

“I think it does a lot of damage,” Green comments, “It’s common for people to look to people that they trust, like celebrity figures, for advice about how to take care of themselves, and whether or not that’s an educated thing to do, or the right force to look to, I think is very debatable. And I would definitely argue that it’s probably not the right source to look to.” 

“But (celebrities) are the kinds of people who (potential dieters) often use as resources, right? If you trust and value someone’s opinion, you’re going to value also how they live their life,” Green continues. “And I also think it’s, from our perspective, also about access, you know, it gives off this very privileged way of living life and what people can afford. That is not realistic. So, in addition to glamorizing disordered eating habits, I think it also (facilitates the) concept of the only way to be healthy is to pay for things that cost a lot of money.”

Schmid and Green indicate that weight-associated stigma is a vital backbone for fad diets. Schmid says, “It’s hard because everybody has a different thing that they are afraid of, or that they’re trying to mitigate by not filling themselves properly. But I feel like, at its core, I think a lot of people just don’t realize just how much food that they truly need in order to live their best life, for lack of a better word.”

Schmid regards her period of unhealthy eating habits as being destructive to her overall wellbeing: “For me personally, I was always in a mental fog. I felt like I wasn’t actually alive. I was just kind of having an out-of-body experience for so long just because my brain wasn’t getting enough (energy).”

Moreover, Green feels that a focus on weight reduction in diet culture has started demonizing important nutrients that most people actually need, such as gluten. Gluten-free diets are essential for people with celiac disease or autoimmune disorders, but NPR reports that over 30% of Americans are trying to avoid gluten in their diets.

“The amount (of food) that people need compared to what is happening in the real world is very disproportionate for people who, for example, have celiac disease, right,” Green explains. “They should not eat wheat or gluten of any kind, because it makes them sick. But the amount of people who actually feel that gluten is a demonized thing is very disproportionate to the amount of people who actually get sick from it.” It seems gluten has fallen victim to another fad craze.

Unlike fact-based nutritional guidelines, fad diets are often devoid of any scientific backing, relying on logical generalizations and surface-level appeal to reel in desperate consumers. 

Luckily, it is more than easy to spot a fad diet on the loose. Red flags of a faulty diet regimen include asking you to eliminate more than one food group, recommending pills and supplements to take in conjunction and promising weight loss results of five pounds or more a week.

One infographic published by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center groups fad diets into four distinct categories: low carb and high fat, very low fat, magic foods and liquid diets. Though there is a variety of diet fads that could crop up on the internet at any time, having a general guideline for red flags of faulty diets never hurts. 

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Whether or not we want to admit it, fad diets are just one component of the ill-informed and pseudo-scientific nutrition culture we’ve cultivated, particularly in America. The entire food industry is littered with false advertising, underhanded marketing towards children and worst of all, corporate lobbyists.

Lofty societal standards coupled with the rise of influencer-dominated social media have created the perfect nesting environment for an insecurity-based machine. They feed us content that makes us insecure, which creates demand for their products, products that only make us sicker and weaker as we incessantly chase the greener grass.

We can’t simply ask society to stop pushing these harmful ideals, enforcing diet culture and maintaining an environment that rewards being skinny — but we certainly can fight them. All it takes to put a stop to these exploitative networks is to stop consenting to be brainwashed. 

Should we ever choose to place more emphasis on proper nutritional education and adequate policy regulation for monopolized food giants and battle weight-centered nutrition, we might stand a chance of reversing our uniquely toxic and uninformed relationships with food. And, we might just improve our health along the way.

Statement Columnist Valerija Malashevich can be reached at valerija@umich.edu.