If you’ve ever set out to improve your health or lose weight through making changes to your eating habits, chances are you’ve heard one of these two phrases:
“It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle”
“Diets don’t work”
I understand that these two phrases are usually spoken with nothing but good intentions.
However, I can’t help but find these sayings peculiar.
Actually, I think that in the grand scheme of things they aren’t serving our collective relationships with food – or our pursuit to achieve optimal health and wellness.
Here are the top two definitions of “diet”, according Oxford Living Dictionaries:
- The kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.
- A special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.
Thus, whenever we are talking about how we eat, and we say, “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle”, we aren’t entirely describing things accurately.
If we’re talking about the kinds of foods you do or do not eat, we are talking about our diet.
Taking a look at that second phrase, “diets don’t work”, it’s generally understood that this statement is made in the context of the second definition.
However, there are millions of people who have made changes to the foods that they eat in an attempt to improve their health or their body composition and been successful.
Many of them even successfully maintain the changes they made to their diets and, thus, maintained the positive changes they’ve made to their health.
You might be thinking at this point that the meaning of these sayings is over my head or that I’m insensitive to the underlying meanings behind them.
I understand that these sayings are meant to describe that the idea of “going on a diet” often ends in failure, and that focusing on long-term sustainable habits is a more effective approach to maintaining a healthy body composition than short-term restriction.
Obviously, context matters, and I wouldn’t necessarily apply the previous statement to physique competitors or athletes in weight-based sports heading into a competition.
In that context, yeah, there’s a pretty strong argument for temporary restriction to push the limits of body composition.
However, for most of us who just look to be lean, strong, and healthy for the long run, I tend to agree that focusing on sustainable change is likely a more effective approach than any effort intended to be for the short term.
You might be curious why, if I don’t necessarily disagree with the intent of these statements, I am somewhat picking on them.
Because they’re forms of turning a blind eye to the fact that what we eat matters.
They discourage many people from making changes to the way they eat out of fear of the word “diet”.
Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.
One of the reasons that these phrases have become so popular is because the word “diet” has (rightfully so) come to represent horrible things.
It’s come to represent shame.
It’s come to represent guilt.
It’s come to represent unworthiness.
It’s come to represent inadequacy.
It’s come to represent fear.
It’s come to represent embarrassment.
It’s come to represent frustration.
It’s come to represent failure.
This word, “diet”, has come to mean so many terrible things to so many people, and it’s a damned shame because our diets can be beautiful.
Our diets – the foods we eat – are potentially our most intimate way to connect to and communicate with our world.
We benefit from the lives of plants and animals that take raw materials from the earth, oxygen from the air, and sunlight, and processed them into protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, cofactors, enzymes, and phytonutrients that have the power to help us shape magnificent, strong, healthy, able bodies that we then use to pursue our dreams and passions.
Sure, our diets have the potential to do the opposite – they can make us sick, out of shape, tired, and miserable.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The question is, “how?”
How do we go about accepting the importance of our food choices without spiraling into the destructive pattern of going “on a diet”?
We de-stigmatize the word “diet”.
First, we recognize that, while we don’t have to “go on a diet”, we will always “have a diet”, and the food that we put into our mouths matters – big time – in terms of how we look and feel.
We are literally what we eat.
Second, we recognize that some it’s okay to make changes to what we eat, and choose to eat or not to eat certain foods, if we do so with the right mindset and intentions.
Now, if your sole purpose is just to maintain a certain weight, then you might be able to get away with an approach like eating “everything in moderation” or a form of flexible dieting.
If you’re good enough at not being triggered by certain foods to eat more than you need, more power to you – you do you.
Seriously, this is legitimate approach that works well for a lot of people.
However, many of us can’t eat “just one”.
Many of us find that we look, feel, and perform our best when we focus on eating certain foods based on various qualities.
After all, structured “diets” can provide a framework – a starting point – for figuring out how different ways of eating might affect our health and body composition.
Additionally, if your goals extend beyond just weight, and into experiencing optimal health, there are plenty of foods that can be problematic, and many folks feel better avoiding them.
Many of us suffer serious health effects if we eat certain things, even in “moderation”.
You can name pretty much any food out there, and I guarantee that there’s somebody who is allergic, intolerant, or sensitive in some other way to that food.
Should we discourage somebody who feels like crap every time they eat not to try eliminating certain foods just because it’s “restrictive”?
Newsflash for you – all diets intended to achieve a specific outcome are restrictive.
Even, “everything in moderation”, requires restricting overall food intake against your will.
So, if you think you might feel better without certain foods in your diet, go ahead and give it a shot!
There’s not a single food out there I’m aware of that serves as the sole source of an essential nutrient.
You can develop deficiencies on any “diet” if you don’t know what you’re doing or working with somebody who does.
If you cut out a certain food and feel better, who is anybody else to tell you that you’re being “too” restrictive if the rest of your diet is adequate?
Implementing a set of rules of guidelines to provide structure for you to use food to create a positive change to your life is nothing to be ashamed of or to hide.
It’s pretty awesome, in my opinion.
Now, that all being said, I have a few HUGE caveats to throw out there.
First of all, making any change to your eating habits because you hate yourself or your body won’t make you automatically love yourself or your body.
You might lose weight, you might address some underlying health issues, but you still won’t be happy with your results and will likely only be perpetuating the “on a diet” cycle that we discussed earlier.
If you’re going to make changes to your eating habits, do it only from a place of self-love, a place of confidence, and a place of strength – not from a place of self-hate, a place of inadequacy, or a place of unworthiness.
Do it because you freaking rock, and you deserve nothing but the best from your body and your life.
Next, understand that not all diets are created equal.
If you read about a diet on the cover of a magazine that is solely pitched as a means for eating less, being smaller, or burning fat, you might want to overlook it.
Often, these kinds of diets are nothing but short-term gimmicks – diets you “go on”.
If, however, you come across a diet intended to improve your health, which often comes along with normalizing weight to a healthy level, you might give it a shot.
Such diets are often intended to be maintained for the long run – diets you “have”.
Most diets that lead to long-term success emphasize minimally processed, whole foods, and provide adequate protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals while keeping overall energy intake appropriate for any weight gain or loss goals.
Beyond that, the details might vary widely from one individual to another.
One person might find that paleo approach works for them to look, feel, and perform their best; another person might find that flexible dieting is the best approach for them; somebody else might prefer a ketogenic diet.
Many folks’ ideal diets won’t even necessarily fit into any label, as they tinkered around and found something unique that works best for them.
It’s okay to “have” a diet, and even to make changes to it, if you focus on how your diet improves your life, how your diet makes you feel, and don’t let your diet become your identity.
So, let’s de-stigmatize the word, “diet”.
Our diets can be wonderful things, but only if our heads are in the right place, and only if we work towards finding the diet that fits our unique goals, preferences, and needs.
You don’t have to “go on a diet”, but you do have to “have a diet”.
Might as well have a diet that makes you – and nobody else – look and feel FN awesome.
You’ve so got this.
Until next time, have a most excellent weekend!