When is a diet not a diet?

People are very hesitant to use the word “Diet” these days. Most every book on diet that you read says very specifically that it isn’t a book on diet. Why would that be? Well, diet got verbified back in the 80s or something. Used to be, diet just meant the totality of what you eat. The diet of Japanese people includes a lot of fish and rice. The diet of the red squirrel consists primarily of nuts. The diet of Godzilla consists primarily of Japanese people. You get the picture. Diet wasn’t a thing you did. If you went “off” a diet, that just meant you had stopped consuming food. So, what does diet mean to people today?

Generally, you’re talking short-term, very calorie-restricted or very food-restrictive (grapefruit cleanse, nothing but Tabasco and lemon juice, etc.) that is intended to result in a weight loss over the short term. When the dieter reaches his or her goal, he or she goes back to eating whatever it is they’ve been avoiding. So when you say to someone “I’m on a new diet” they think you mean that you’re going to starve yourself for a few weeks and then go back to what you had been doing that made you fat in the first place. Frankly, that is just obviously not a long term solution. People talk about crash diets, where you restrict your calories very severely in the hopes that starving yourself over a shorter period will result in significant weight loss. The main features of this type of diet are that it is short term, very restrictive, and never, ever works. It’s not even designed to work, when you think about it. If you go back to doing what got you fat in the first place, what possible chance do you have to maintain your weight loss long term? Zero. It’s nonsense. It’s so silly and stupid, I think this type of weight loss plan shouldn’t even be given the honor of being called a diet.

Here’s why they don’t work, because it will be important later. When you significantly restrict calories on a daily basis for an extended period of time, all kinda of metabolic processes get down-regulated. Basically, your body sees a lack of energy coming in, and makes you more efficient as a result. This is called the “starvation response” by a lot of folks. It does what it says on the tin. Your body thinks it’s starving, and starts to get more stingy with energy. If you’re not getting enough protein or glucose to run your necessary functions, your body will also cannibalize lean tissue. Awesome. Then, because lean tissue requires more calories to maintain, and you’ve just gotten rid of it, when you go “off the diet” and start eating whatever you want, you’ve got a down-regulated metabolism and also less lean mass. You’re going to gain back what you lost and then some, pretty much guaranteed.

So what is up with this definition of diet? It just seems silly. It’s also misleading, because when you say “I’m eating a new diet” or “I’m changing my diet” referring to a long-term, permanent change, people immediately assume you’re talking about a short-term food failure. It’s very hard to explain to someone that you are making a permanent change to your eating habits, because everyone is so conditioned to think of dietary baseline as being pizza, soda and cake as much as you want. If you’re going to start eating more fresh vegetables, or going to stop drinking soda, it simply must be short term, right? How could anyone live the rest of their lives without chemical-laden snack cakes and carbonated high fructose corn syrup?

Anyway, I’m getting off on a rant here. The main point is that I think the current accepted definition of “diet” needs to go. It’s a useless word, describing a useless activity. On the other hand, using the word “diet” to describe the totality of what you eat is entirely useful, as there aren’t any other words quite so well suited to the task. I know this is why all the diet books say they aren’t diet books. None of them want to be associated with such a nonsensical activity as short-term, extreme caloric restriction. Rather than convoluting our language around this perfectly legitimate word to avoid the current understanding, let’s start using it correctly, educating others, and take back this word for the people who are actually going to put it to good use.

So say we all.


One comment on “When is a diet not a diet?

  1. Kris says:

    I always say I am changing my nutrition, instead of Diet. Diet is used so much with the fad diets and such, most people laugh at you and know if you are trying a “diet” diet you will be on that yo-yo path back to fatness again. If I didn’t say diet enough I am sorry, I was trying to use other words as well, but diet keeps popping back up. Oh yeah I almost forgot, I am going shopping today to try the Paleo “nutrition” plan!

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