When Did “Diet” Become A Dirty Word?

The longer I remain in the health and wellness industry, the longer lines become drawn between the right way and the wrong way to do something, the optimal path to success, and all the nuance involved when it comes to someone simply trying to improve themselves through food.

It’s not uncommon now to find some really fantastic coaches, doctors, dietitians and the like steering people away from the word “diet”. The implication is that dieting means you’re doing something potentially unsafe, with a high failure rate (not being able to maintain a given weight after dieting) and only fosters a more dysfunctional relationship with food.

Many of these same health professionals will espouse a more intuitive style of eating (not to be confused necessarily with the Intuitive Eating plan) and try to instill better eating habits through food environment, support systems and some basic nutrition guidelines (more lean protein, more vegetables, less processed foods, etc.)

While I love those nutrition guidelines and they reflect much of what I coach to clients, I don’t quite understand all the shame around the word “diet”.

Here’s why:

Do a little internet scouring and “diet” has roots in the Greek (Latin) word, diaita, or “way of life” and that doesn’t exactly sound like it has a negative connotation to me.

In this day and age, when someone typically wants to reduce their weight they talk about “going on a diet”. The understanding is that they will be making some marked changes to the way they have been currently eating via some degree of food intake reduction. However, when someone wants to increase their weight for perhaps a given sport or for health reasons, this is still a “diet”. They are just dieting to gain as opposed to dieting to reduce. It’s about strategy…(more on this later).

Part of my frustration comes from the fact that we are all (myself included) trying to navigate the best way to eat for us, our lives and our goals. At 45 years of age, I don’t eat the same way now that I did when I was 25. At 25, I ate with no regard whatsoever to food quality, portion sizes or anything like that. My body is less forgiving of that behavior now and I do try to focus on getting the food that I need to fuel my day, my workouts and to maintain the body weight I keep now. How I eat is my diet. It is my “way of life”.

A few years ago, when I intentionally lost a handful of pounds to reduce some fat mass on my body, that was also dieting. I was just dieting with a plan and a strategy to get to a given goal. That included eating in a deficit, getting in enough protein to preserve my lean body mass and some toying around with intermittent fasting and TV dinners to have better control over my intake that worked well at the time.

I think people who are trying their best to find a way of eating that works best for their lifestyles, current stressors, and current goals might be dealing with enough shame as it is. Implying that the word diet, by itself, is a negative is only going to lead to more frustration than what already exists.

My advice this week is to find the way of life that works best for you.

Answer these two questions:

-Am I happy?

-Am I healthy?

If the answer is yes, then your way of life is close to where it should be.

If you answered no to either (or both) of those, find the way of life that gets you closer.

It doesn’t have to match anyone else’s definition and if it takes a diet by any name to get you closer to where you want to be (and it’s done safely/sanely) the semantics don’t really matter anyway.