On one level, it's easy to understand the allure of a fad diet: Eat this, not that and you'll lose weight, guaranteed. Who doesn't want an easy way to shed unwanted pounds?
It was that sort of thinking that first prompted photographer Stephanie Gonot to investigate many current fad diets. "I had tried Weight Watchers — and it works," the Los Angeles-based freelancer tells The Salt. "And then you kind of slip off of that, and then you think, 'What else can you do that is easier than counting points?' ... So I started researching [other diets] and thought, 'These do not sound healthy.' "
Healthful they may not be. But visually stirring? Absolutely. Looking at what such diets require you to subsist on — lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne for the Master Cleanse, for example— helps crystallize just how absurd (for most people) they are.
"I think it's funny to see exactly what these diets entail visually instead of reading about them," Gonot says.
The series, called "Fad Diets," is really a reflection of a culture that's become overly obsessed with dieting in general.
"There's all this stuff in the media about fad diets," she says, "and I think we need to eat better and watch what you eat, but you don't necessarily need these diets to take care of that."
That's a point the medical community is making as well. In a commentary published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers Sherry Pagoto of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Bradley Appelhans of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago issued a call for an end to fad dieting.
Pagoto and Appelhans argue that our obsession with macronutrients — carbs and fat, among them — misses the point that the best diet is the one you actually stick with. And no diet, they argue, can truly be effective without an overhaul in lifestyle as well.
Pagoto notes that multiple studies have compared diets that vary by how many carbs, protein grams and fat grams they require you to eat. "A lot of times, it's a draw: No diet is better than the other," she says in a video press release. "When a diet does outdo another diet in terms of weight loss, it's by a very small amount."
(Not all obesity researchers would agree. As we've reported, one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012 found that a low-carb diet was a clear winner over a low-fat diet and low-glycemic diet.)
Still, Pagoto has hit on something that has stymied many dieters forever: the challenge of sticking with a weight-loss plan that's both healthful and effective.
"We really need to shift our conversation away from what exactly people should be eating to how do you change their behavior, how do you get people to make long-term changes," Pagoto says.
When it comes to that effort, images like those in Gonot's series can help, says Kate Pilewski, a student health dietitian at Duke University. She and her colleagues plan to use the photographs as part of their student outreach during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the spring.
"We give students advice about why fad diets don't provide the nutrients they need," Pilewski tells The Salt. "But seeing [these diets] in photos is really striking and makes them look much less appealing than hearing that Beyonce did it."