Be Science Savvy to Avoid Falling for Health Trends and Fad Diets

woman with skeptical expression

Have you tried every new fad diet and quick-fix health trend? Have you found them to lack results and long-term benefits? The latest fads can be enticing but often sound too good to be true — and usually they are. Armed with some solid tools, you can sort through the pseudoscience and fake health news to identify credible solutions for lasting healthy outcomes. To get started, let’s use Moe’s story.

Moe was trying to lose weight and was willing to try just about anything. He consulted his friends who told him about a new craze: the witch diet. Apparently, if he added a brew of bat’s wing, eye of newt and frog legs to his meal plan, he was guaranteed to shed the pounds.

Why do we fall for fads?

The diet sounded ridiculous, but a few things got Moe’s attention:

Simplicity: Moe loved the path of least resistance — we all do. This survival impulse still remains with us from long ago when every spare calorie mattered to stay alive. Because the witch diet sounded so easy and offered such big results, Moe just had to hear more.

Novelty: Moe was bored with the same old diet plan and workout routine. His brain identified the witch diet as something new, and it subconsciously compelled him to seek out the unknown rewards. After all, not investigating might result in a missed opportunity.

Fear: Fear of missing out (FOMO) was built into Moe’s psyche. No one wants to be left out, especially when you can see what everyone else is up to online. Moe was compelled to join his friends and not be the odd one out. 

Moe still wasn’t sure — something about the diet set off his spidey senses. So next he “researched” what the interwebs had to say. He couldn’t deny all the pictures he saw online: attractive, lean, muscular people with the brew in hand. The diet must be working, right?

Shaky Science Pitfalls

Well, probably not. It would have helped if Moe had known about a few things to consider when evaluating new information:

Confirmation Bias

Even when Moe came across claims that the new diet didn’t work, he quickly passed over them and skipped to the next post. That comes as no surprise. Research shows that our brains are biased toward evidence that supports what we want to believe. For example, one study showed that when two different speeches on a topic were available, listeners overwhelmingly chose the one that supported the view they already held. Why challenge your beliefs when you could sit back and be validated?

Law of Truly Large Numbers

Of course, there were success stories to be found. Huge sample sizes almost guarantee that every possible outcome will happen. If Moe threw a million pennies into the air, some of them would almost certainly land on their edges. However, that doesn’t mean they would usually land that way. Likewise, way more people will shout about their successes than admit to failure. His online feed was loaded with tales of dieting triumph even though, statistically, there were way more fails that no one was boasting about.

Placebo Effect

The brew got all the weight loss credit, but the real star could have been the placebo effect. That’s when someone experiences a result through suggestion alone. Take, for example, when a headache goes away after you take something (even if you grabbed a breath mint instead of a pain reliever). You expect the headache to go away, and so it does. In the case of the witch diet, perhaps many people were less hungry and lost weight because they’d been told the brew was supposed to curb their appetites.

Correlation vs Causation

Moe didn’t consider that while some people on the diet were losing weight, it wasn’t because of the potion. Perhaps, instead, they’d been chasing down frogs and bats to mix their own brew and in the process were getting way more exercise. In other cases, the brew might have been part of a larger diet and exercise lifestyle change. It wasn’t really the brew that made the difference. It was all the other things. So, weight loss and the witch brew were correlated, which means they were related, but one wasn’t actually causing the other.


Lastly, Moe didn’t know that French dining was on the decline and frog leg distributors were looking to unload their overstock. They’d concocted the witch diet and added outrageous claims to lure more people into the scheme. And as sales soared, the claims got even more outrageous. Marketing often plays a huge role in the hype around a new trend. But all those advertising dollars don’t necessarily translate to the promised results.

In the end, Moe spent good money on worthless supplements for a diet that didn’t work.

So, what can we learn from Moe’s experience? For starters, stay clear of anecdotal evidence and marketing hype. Next, look for articles based on current research from trusted sources to report research findings fairly and accurately. And, finally, search for cited studies that meet scientifically rigorous criteria, including sound science. 

Hallmarks of Sound Science

Large Sample Sizes

If two out of four people lost weight on a particular diet, it doesn’t mean 500 out of 1,000 would, too. Small sample sizes in a study simply don’t cut it. Big numbers are needed to support statistically significant claims.


Studies should be designed with both control groups and experimental groups. In these types of studies, subjects are randomly assigned to avoid any selection bias by researchers, placebo effects and other anomalies.


The outcome of one study could be a fluke. But if results are replicated and repeated a few times, the study is more likely to be trustworthy. Meta-analyses are studies that review and analyze many similar studies. But if one isn’t available for your topic of interest, at least make sure that conclusions haven’t been drawn in a vacuum.

Credible Sources

The sources matter, too. A study posted on “Frog-Legs-R-Us” might be suspect if it is expounding on the merits of reptilian drumsticks. Make sure sources don’t have a (marketing) reason to be biased.

The next time a claim sounds too good to be true, don’t repeat Moe’s mistakes. Make sure it’s not appealing to you for the wrong reasons, and that the so-called evidence is legit. Find research from a trusted, science-based source to get the real story. Avoid falling prey to fads, so you can be healthy for good!