October 4, 2011

Yes, I Do Have a Diet. No, I’m not Dieting.

To steal an opening from 82% of my public speaking students: Webster’s Dictionary (or Wikipedia) defines diet as

“food and drink regularly provided or consumed.”

So, this means that however you eat, whatever your patterns are, that is your diet.  If you mostly eat orange food from a box/bag/carton/jar (kraft mac n’ cheese, cheetos, oj, cheese whiz, queso dip, doritos) then you have an orange diet.  If you primarily eat fruits and vegetables in their natural form, then you have a raw food diet.  If you do not eat any animal products, you have a vegan diet, and so on.

But, that’s not how we tend to think about “diet,” as a quick check of Google indicates.  When we think about or talk about diet, we tend to be focusing on the issue of weight loss.

I don’t know how this became the default definition of the word diet, but it seems to be.  If someone tells people that he/she is on a raw food diet or a juice diet, the first response is frequently, “Why? You don’t need to lose any weight,” or “Have you lost much weight?”  Whether the individual “needs” to lose any weight is neither here nor there.  Why is the assumption that an eating plan is designed to promote weight loss?  I’m sure, somehow, this has to do with our increasing girth in much of the western world, combined with an obsession with slimness.

Regardless of how the situation arose, I think it is problematic that all of our attention to “diet” tends to revolve around weight loss or restriction.  When we focus on diet/dieting as a weight loss tool or a refusal of particular food, our awareness is automatically drawn to what we cannot have.  So, when someone undertakes a low carb diet to lose weight, the focus is on eliminating carbs (bread, fruit, pasta, etc.) from the diet, not on what is eaten (vegetables, proteins, dairy).  This isn’t a very efficient way to change behavior for the better.

Put a small child in a room with a desk or a dresser and make a big deal of telling him/her not to open the drawer and then stand quietly outside and see how long it takes for the drawer to be opened.  Go ahead and pick a kid; I’ll wait.  Chances are decent that the drawer will be opened.  Why?  Well, some psychologists/philosophers/sociologists/etc., like Gregory Bateson, would tell us that humans think in terms of what we are “not” doing, and that, in fact, the only way to think about not doing something is to imagine doing it.  So, when you tell that small child not to open the drawer, you leave him or her imagining what might happen if the drawer is opened and the desire to do so just increases.

It’s much the same with “dieting” in the restriction sense.  As soon as you are told, or tell yourself, that you cannot have XYZ food, you spend a lot of time in your day thinking about not having that food, and thereby thinking about having it.  So, a low calorie diet becomes a day spent thinking, “I won’t eat a cookie.  I won’t eat a cookie.  I won’t eat a cookie… cookie… cookie… cookie,” and eventually, there you are with your hand in the cookie jar.  And then once you’ve already “messed up” your “diet” for the day by breaking the rule about what not to eat, you might as well go ahead and have 3 cookies, or 5, or 10.  How many people have you heard say, “I could never be a vegan, because I couldn’t give up cheese.”  The first thought is of loss and restriction.  And yes, it would be very hard to give up cheese if you spent the day considering how much you wished to have a slice of cheddar.

It’s much more useful to think about what we will/should eat.  Instead of thinking, “I can’t have a nacho plate for lunch,” you think “I’m going to make a huge salad with field greens, walnuts, cranberries, apples, and a raspberry vinaigrette for lunch.  Mmmmm.”  Now the focus shifts to what you are going to eat and how good and good for you it is going to be.  It’s a much healthier and happier way to approach food.  We are humans and we need to eat for survival (duh), but moreover, food tastes good to us (I don’t know if it works this way for cows, but I’m pretty sure it does for dogs).   It’s much nicer to think about all of the good (and good for us) things we can have instead of thinking about what we can’t have.

If we, as a culture, could adopt a view of diet that focused more on building a delicious and nutritious eating plan, and less on labeling some food as “bad” and some as “good” and then eliminating items based on their “badness,” we would be happier with ourselves and our meals.  We would likely feel better emotionally, and physically.  And, who knows, we might just lose a few pounds.

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