In this article:
- Extreme diets have existed since at least the 19th century.
- From taking pregnancy hormones to intentionally swallowing a tapeworm, people will go to crazy lengths to achieve whatever the beauty ideal of the day is.
- These fad diets can be extremely harmful to your health and never lead to permanent weight loss since it’s impossible to maintain them for more than a few weeks.
Extreme dieting is nothing new. According to Louise Foxcroft’s Calories & Corsets: a History of Dieting over 2000 years, society has been obsessed with quick fixes since at least the 19th century.
Lord Byron, a romantic poet, built a reputation not just on his words but on his commitment to trimming down his figure. Once a portly fellow, he subsisted on a diet of vinegary potatoes and wore several layers to sweat away the excess pounds.
As a girl who grew up alongside magazines and billboards and then with the internet, fad diets have always been intriguing to me. Young, impressionable minds like mine easily fall for the fastest ways to get slim or achieve whatever figure is deemed the ideal at the time.
When so much of the media tells you to look a certain way, bizarre diets consisting of liquefied meals, bland cabbage soup, and potatoes drenched in vinegar don’t seem so bizarre. They seem like necessary fixes.
The reason these fad diets are not sustainable, though, is that they’re extreme to the point of being harmful to our health. Such is the case for these bizarre ways people eat to lose weight.
Injecting or ingesting hormones is usually done when the body lacks a particular one you need. For instance, some preterm babies require additional levels of growth hormones, while women on fertility treatments are prescribed reproductive hormones.
But some people also take hormones that they don’t need for weight loss purposes. Specifically, they take human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG.
hCG is a pregnancy hormone, produced by the placenta and is essential in supporting the growth of the fetus. It’s this function that an endocrinologist in the 1950s, Albert T.W. Simeons, thought to tap into for weight loss.
Simeons concluded that the hormone transforms fat into an energy source for fetuses, which is how hCG supports their growth in the womb. His theory was that if your body had access to this hormone, even when you weren’t pregnant, you could keep burning fat effortlessly.
The science is murky at best — no study has verified Simeon’s too-good-to-be-true theory — and, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) later warned, fraudulent at worst.
It’s misleading to claim the hCG is even the cause of the weight loss people experience. The hCG diet puts followers on a very low calorie (around 500 calories) diet for three to six weeks. Those who claim success and praise hCG for being, quite literally, a magic pill only lose weight because of that restrictive nutrition plan.
There are side effects to eating so little for a long period of time. Those side effects include dizziness, fatigue, and mood swings. Basically, expect to feel very hangry on this diet! Taking hCG can also cause nausea, stomach or pelvic pain, and even depression. Plus, the pills and injectables are expensive, making the diet truly unsustainable.
When Beyonce lost 20 pounds for her role in Dreamgirls, everyone naturally asked what her secret was. The singer-songwriter revealed it was the Master Cleanse diet that did the trick.
Many people are already familiar with this juice cleanse that consists of drinking fresh lemonade with cayenne pepper and maple syrup. The diet lasts for ten days, tops, and followers can repeat the cycle every few weeks.
The Master Cleanse Diet claims that weight loss is only a natural side effect, but its main goal is to “detoxify” the body of harmful substances. It’s arguably one of the most popular detox programs. Celebrities in the early 2000s credited it for feeling more energized, “cleansed,” and, of course, for helping them shed unwanted pounds.
As much as we love to think that we can trigger the body to eliminate toxins, it isn’t quite that simple. In fact, experts explain that the body filters waste on its own via the gastrointestinal tract, liver, and kidneys.
A better way to flush out harmful substances is to follow a lifestyle that doesn’t harm these organs. For example, moderate your consumption of alcohol and eat more gut-healthy foods. That way, you can ensure the proper functioning of your natural detoxification system.
As far as diets go, you may think it’s not the most peculiar, but that’s likely because you’ve been desensitized to terms like “juice cleanse” and “detox.” So it doesn’t seem extreme for a person to consume nothing but liquids for a week or more.
When you strip away the hype and examine the Master Cleanse further, you’ll see it’s nothing more than extreme starvation. Any weight loss you experience on a juice cleanse is due to drastically reducing the number of calories you consume. And, much like being on the hCG diet, you’re not going to be a very happy person to be around.
Sleeping Beauty Diet
There are many tricks people do to curb their appetite or, in the case of the Sleeping Beauty diet, avoid eating altogether. In a nutshell, this diet lives on one basic premise: Sleep more, eat less.
On the surface, the diet sounds similar to other weight loss strategies like intermittent fasting (IF). People on IF typically skip breakfast or dinner and eat only during a strict eating window. However, IF doesn’t require being unconscious through meal times to avoid them.
The screaming red flag here is that the diet encourages — or, at least, doesn’t discourage — the use of sleeping aids to help you sleep through the periods when you would normally eat. This is simply a manifestation of disordered eating, says registered dietitian Amy Shapiro, one that can easily become a slippery slope to drug abuse.
There are other things you miss, too, apart from meals. If you spend upwards of 20 hours asleep, how will you have time for work, school, and relationships? The diet can become very isolating, even more so for people who are already living with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and disordered eating.
Most people would cringe at the idea of having a parasite living in their gut. However, there are some people desperate enough to swallow tapeworm eggs on purpose in the pursuit of thinness.
Yes, you read that right. The tapeworm diet, which is more of a manufactured infection than a diet, originated in the Victorian era. It was still, however, making rounds in the early 2000s with TV hosts like Tyra Banks giving airtime to women who’d want to swallow the parasite to lose weight.
The goal is for the eggs in the pill to hatch. The parasite will then eat whatever food you put in your body. The tapeworm leeches off of your diet, consuming most of your nutrients, so you can eat what you want without gaining a single ounce.
It should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway: You really shouldn’t swallow tapeworm eggs.
The serious risks of having a parasite live in your body far outweigh the supposed benefits. For one, you don’t know where it will exactly end up residing. Tapeworms can attach to organs and cause an invasive infection. There are even cases of the parasite finding its way to the brain, where it can cause serious neurological damage.
The Bottom Line: Avoid Fad Diets
Having tapeworms in your gut is perhaps the most bizarre of all the fad diets in recent history. That being said, there are clear physical and psychological risks to all the fad diets discussed here.
Anytime you severely restrict calories, whether by drinking juice instead of eating a well-balanced meal or sleeping through meals, you’re inviting several acute and long-term side effects. You may experience a range of physical symptoms like nausea and stomach pains, or psychological ones, like mood swings and depression.
And, inviting a parasite to live in your body means you’re not the one who benefits from the nutrients you consume. You’re surrendering the reins of weight loss to a microscopic creature, in hopes that you can eat whatever you want because it will do its parasitic function anyway.
All of these diets are short-lived because they are dangerous and, more often than not, counterproductive to one’s weight loss goals. You’re most likely losing water weight and muscle mass, not fat.
Anyone who goes on a crash diet knows it’s not forever, and when they return to their old ways of eating, they regain the lost weight and more. This is known as yo-yo dieting. It slows down your metabolism, making it harder for you to keep the weight off or lose it no matter how hard you try.
Fad diets look promising but they’re nothing more than a quick fix. As is often the case with these magic pills, strange diets are not the most sustainable way to achieve your goal weight or become healthy.
Instead, aim for sustainable habit changes instead: Eat well; exercise and live an active lifestyle; sleep a normal amount of hours; and avoid tapeworms.