Registered Dietician Weighs in on How 10 Top Diet Crazes Have Stood the Test of Time

Ana Reisdorf
Registered Dietician Weighs in on How 10 Top Diet Crazes Have Stood the Test of Time
Diet trends come and go. In the 80s, it was all about low fat, high carb eating. Then the pendulum swung back to low carb, high fat. Although these diets seem to be “new,” many are just the same general principles recycled over and over depending on current trends.

Here are the top 10 diet crazes throughout the years and how they are viewed now. Hint: You can probably expect to see some of these back in the near future:

1. Atkins Diet

Summary: Effective for weight loss; Difficult to stick with long term.

The Atkins diet is the original low carb, high fat diet. The book “The Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution” was published in 1972, by cardiologist Dr. Robert Atkins. In 2003, the diet was revolutionized to include more lean protein, some healthy carbs, and unsaturated fats.

The Atkins diet starts with a very low carb phase of 20 grams per day or less. It gradually increases the amount of carbs you can have, while still eliminating refined flour and sugar. Eventually, you reach a maintenance phase where more carbs are allowed. 

Low carbohydrate diets are effective for weight loss. A 2007 study compared Atkins with other popular diets like the Zone and Ornish Diets. Researchers found that over a 12 month period, those on Atkins lost significantly more weight than subjects following the other diets

Atkins may be effective for weight loss due to the high protein intake and the ability to eat high fat foods, which suppress hunger and increase satisfaction. But it is difficult to stick with long-term which may result in weight regain once carbs are reintroduced.

2. South Beach Diet

Summary: Well balanced diet with a strong focus on plant foods and whole grains.

The South Beach Diet, published in 2003, was designed by a Florida cardiologist named Arthur Agatston. It is a phased diet that starts off with 2 weeks of a fairly strict low carbohydrate diet and gradually starts to loosen up restrictions. 

The “maintenance” phase is a healthy eating plan that allows for a few treats. Maintenance involves eating a balanced diet of lean proteins, low glycemic carbohydrates, unsaturated fats, and plenty of vegetables. 

The South Beach Diet principles are based in pretty solid science. It is well documented that a higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet increases satiety and helps with weight loss. A 2007 study evaluated the diet in people with obesity and metabolic disease. They found that the diet did help suppress appetite, modified hunger hormones, and helped subjects lose weight

There is one case study of a person following the South Beach diet that developed ketoacidosis, a dangerous condition usually associated with diabetes, but this is probably fairly uncommon.

3. Weight Watchers (WW)

Summary: WW has stood the test of time for effective diets due to social support and teaching customers how to make sustainable lifestyle changes.

Weight Watchers, now rebranded as WW, is one of the diets that has stood the test of time. It has been popular for over 40 years. Although the program has evolved over time, it is generally based on eating a calorie-restricted diet by tracking “points” values of foods. 

Recently, their focus has become more on choosing whole foods, like vegetables and lean proteins, which are now “free” on the program. One important aspect of the program is the accountability provided via support group meetings and regular weigh-ins. 

If you stick with the program, WW works. A review of 39 clinical trials found that people lose approximately 2.9% more weight on WW than other diet programs. Another study found that participants who followed the program for at least a year were more successful at maintaining their weight over a 2 year period.

4. Zone Diet

Summary: Focuses on eating a specific macronutrient ratio; little evidence to support claims.

The Zone Diet is a diet popularized by celebrities like Jennifer Aniston. It encourages maintaining a balance of macronutrients at each meal. The goal is to eat 40% of calories from carbs, 30% from fat, and 30% from protein. The goal is to control insulin levels, reset your metabolism, and hunger to induce weight loss. 

There is surprisingly little evidence to support the claims around the optimal macronutrient distribution of the Zone Diet. Eating a balanced diet may be beneficial for health. Also, eating more protein can increase satiety and lead to weight loss.

5. Nutrisystem

Summary: Pre-planned boxed meals that take the thinking and planning out of dieting.

Nutrisystem is a diet that involves eating prepared meals that are shipped to your home. This removes any planning and thinking required for dieting. Meals are prepared to meet your individual calorie requirements. The meals also consider glycemic index, helping regulate blood sugar. 

Removing decision fatigue around what to eat can be helpful for some people in losing weight. But only being able to consume food from a box likely becomes boring and unsustainable after awhile. 

In terms of research, there aren’t many studies on the program itself, although the company does have many client testimonials. One study found that people lose around 15-25% of their body weight while following the program, but weight regain is common once they stop eating the boxed food.

6. Macrobiotic Diet

Summary: Mostly vegetarian diet that also involves adopting a slower-paced lifestyle.

The macrobiotic diet is more of a lifestyle than a diet. It is based on the ying/yang principles of Asian culture. It encourages eating mostly vegetarian and unprocessed foods, and includes meditation and a slower lifestyle. It includes lots of whole grains, vegetables, and fish. 

The macrobiotic diet has not been evaluated specifically for weight loss. But its focus on unprocessed foods and slowing down while eating may help you naturally achieve a healthier weight. 

The macrobiotic diet has been evaluated for possibly helping prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer due to its focus on plant-based foods and minimal animal fat. The main concern with the macrobiotic diet is that it may be hard to stick with due to the restrictions of how foods need to be prepared and the lifestyle changes involved.

7. Carb Cycling

Summary: Popular in the fitness community; Involves alternating between high carb and low carb days.

Carb cycling is a slightly easier approach to following a low carb diet. It involves eating low carb a few days a week, “cycled” with eating higher carb on other days. This diet is popular with fitness gurus who use it to achieve certain body composition goals and cut body fat.

There is surprising little scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of this diet. In a search of the literature, I was only able to find a few studies in the 1990s on the impact of carb cycling on weight training and exercise performance. It may also influence hunger and satiety hormones, like leptin, making it easier to stick with a low calorie diet.

8. Keto Diet

Summary: Very low carb, high fat diet that is effective for weight loss, but difficult to stick with long-term.

The keto diet is currently one of the most popular new diet trends, but it is not a new diet at all. The ketogenic diet has been around since the 1920s and was used as a treatment for epilepsy. It recently regained popularity because celebrities started using it for weight loss.

Keto is a very low carb, high fat diet. The goal is to consume between 20-50 grams of carbs in order to enter a metabolic state called ketosis. In the absence of carbs, the body turns to stored fat for energy. This usually results in appetite suppression and rapid weight loss. 

The ketogenic diet is extremely effective for losing weight. A 2013 study found it was more effective for weight loss and improving blood lipids than a calorie-controlled low fat diet. Other studies have found similar results. 

The main criticism of the keto diet is that it is hard to stick with long-term. Once carbohydrates are reintroduced, this may result in weight regain.

9. Paleo/Whole 30

Summary: Focuses on eating foods that “cavemen” would have eaten.

The Paleo Diet and its spin off, Whole 30, became popular in the mid-2000s with the published work of Dr. Loren Cordain, an anthropologist. The diet involves eating foods that were around during the “caveman” days—basically meat, fruit, nuts, and vegetables. Grains, dairy, and processed foods are eliminated. 

Whole 30 is a spin off of Paleo created by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. It involves following a strict version of Paleo for 30 days to help identify any food sensitivities and intolerances. 

With the popularity of the Paleo diet, there is surprisingly little evidence to support its claims. One of the main criticisms is that no one truly knows what “cavemen” ate. While we can probably assume they didn’t subsist on a diet of chips and sodas, a paleolithic diet was likely quite varied. 

Overall, the Paleo diet may result in weight loss and improved metabolic parameters due to the elimination of sugar, processed foods, and refined grains which are easy to overeat.

10. Volumetrics

Summary: Focus on eating foods high in fiber and water to make you feel full, while decreasing calorie intake.

The Volumetrics diet is based on the desire to feel full, while cutting calories. It was invented by Barbara Rolls, PhD, a nutrition scientist. With Volumetrics, the focus is on consuming foods high in fiber and water allows you to eat more volume, while controlling calories. 

The foods that are highest in water and fiber are primarily fruits and vegetables. A diet rich in plants has been shown to help with weight loss. A small study of 12 women also found that following a volumetrics diet helped induce weight loss as well.

Choosing the Best Diet for You

All of these dietary “theories” can get confusing because individual lifestyle, health, and preferences need to be considered when choosing how to eat. Following a fad diet ignores your personal preferences and needs. Additionally, rigidly following any one of these diets will likely lead to unnecessary food rules and excessive restrictions.

When choosing how to eat, pick a weight loss method that is sustainable long-term. Eating food from a box or trying to eliminate all carbohydrates forever will likely only result in weight regain. A healthy weight is built on a simple foundation of a plant-rich diet, supplemented with healthy fats and lean protein. Sticking with simplicity is the most effective way to reach your goals, rather than jumping from fad to fad.

Ana Reisdorf
Ana Reisdorf is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 13-years of experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics who writes for top10.com. She currently shares her passion for nutrition on a larger scale as a writer. She has published three cookbooks, including her most recent release "The 21-day Arthritis Diet Plan" and has written many major health and nutrition brands.

The information on this site is based on research, but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet plan, we recommend consulting with a physician or other professional healthcare provider. Results may vary based on various health factors, individual weight loss plans and adherence to the meal plan.