What’s in a diet? An Introduction

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After writing yesterday’s post, I thought a lot about the difficulty I had with it.  In particular, I found it hard to emphasize that I am not opposed to the concept of weight loss, but that I do take issue with the way being overweight or underweight, losing weight, and pursuing a healthy lifestyle are treated by what I think of as mainstream society.  I think it’s really important that someone who makes a decision to lose weight does so for the right reasons, and not because they feel they have to do so because of societal pressure.  Of course that’s easier said than done, since society affects our thoughts and feelings in very subtle ways: a decision we may think we are making for ourselves may actually have more to do with the way we want to be seen by others, or the images we see on television and in magazines.  Weight loss and the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, to me, are not projects to be taken on lightly, and they can be really hard to maintain because there are so many different ways in which they can be undermined.

I think this is immediately obvious when you take the concept of a “diet” into consideration.  What does the word diet mean?  Basically, it’s what one eats.  But what are the connotations of a diet?  Counting calories, deprivation, striving to lose weight, etc.  This morning my younger sister and I chatted briefly online about the Engine 2 Diet, which she is doing with some co-workers.  She’s a vegan, and said that the diet is pretty easy for her.  It’s not about counting calories, but rather eating more cleanly.  It’s a vegan, plant-based diet that eliminates any added oils.  Simple, right?  It’s not some crazy plan that requires you to cut out carbohydrates, or eat only grape fruit, or avoid certain foods after 6 p.m.  It’s just a better way to eat, and is probably pretty close to the way we should be eating for optimal health.  However, when she mentioned the word “diet”, I bristled because of my background with weight loss.  Obviously I’m working on my perspective now, and there are things I understand and know intellectually.  But there are also things that give me great emotional difficulty, and the d-word evokes a lot of them.

For a long time, I would pore over magazines like Shape or Fitness, thinking that if I did the workouts they contained and followed every calorie-restrictive meal plan they published, that I would finally get the thin, lean body I had always wanted.  I obsessed over the workouts, and I’d memorize the meal plans.  I would get extremely hung up on both, and end up stuck feeling that I would always have the fat, ugly, deficient body I hated but that I still had to work as hard as possible and do everything these magazines said because that might magically make me less worthless, because ultimately I was unable to do the workouts and follow the meal plans to a tee.  Rather than think of them as unrealistic, though, I thought of myself as a failure.  And that feeling has stuck, and it has attached itself to the concept of dieting (and, to a less significant but still undeniable degree, to exercising). My idols at this time were women like Sporty Spice of the Spice Girls, and Fiona Apple, both of whom (I later discovered) had eating disorders.  My fixation on dieting and being “healthy” led me to equate being happy and beautiful with being thin, and being miserable and ugly with being fat.  These are not standards I use for anyone other than myself, but boy have they affected the way I see and treat myself!

Recently, Emily at the Daily Garnish did a post on the idea of calorie counting and how there’s a fine line between it being productive and it being counterproductive.  I think the idea of dieting and everything that so many of us have ended up pinning on it ends up functioning in the same way.  How do our own ideas about health, and society’s ideas about health help us or hurt us when it comes to our diet?  How does the word change when we talk about a diet versus being on a diet?  What can we do to break down the unhealthy connotations around the word and build up some healthier ones?  These are all things I want to explore in more depth in a series of posts.  I know this brief introduction has been a little disjointed and rambling (I blame the cold, people); I’ve tried to touch on just some of the issues I want to examine.  More than anything, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts: what does dieting mean to you?  Feel free to share in the comments.

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10 comments

  1. Diets are tough! A diet is not simply something that you can just decide to do one day, such as say to yourself, “I’m going on a diet, and I’m going to stop eating snacks or large portions or dessert or whatever.” You really have to completely re-train yourself physically and mentally as per dietary habits and prepare yourself for a siege-like period of emotional ups and downs. And it’s a commitment too. Every now and then, I find the right time and place to start up a new diet, usually when the stars and planets are all aligned properly or something like that. And every time I find success with a diet, I have found that eventually I succumb to the old ways and bad habits and I re-gain at least some portion of the weight that I had lost. Time to start a new diet again!

  2. I know you didn’t mean to, but this statement

    “It’s not about counting calories, but rather eating more cleanly. It’s a vegan, plant-based diet that eliminates any added oils. Simple, right? It’s not some crazy plan that requires you to cut out carbohydrates, or eat only grape fruit, or avoid certain foods after 6 p.m. It’s just a better way to eat, and is probably pretty close to the way we should be eating for optimal health. ”

    Is actually dripping with judgment.

    Eating “more cleanly” as opposed to the “dirty” way we normally eat?

    “close to the way we *should* be eating for *optimal* health. How do you know how we *should* be eating? The truth is most nutritionists don’t know how we should be eating. What they do know is that there are a number of ways of eating healthfully that have all survived. Inuits, traditionally, eat almost exclusively a meat based diet with a handful of berries in the summer months. They not only lived – they thrived. Until we introduced western ways of eating. Mexican immigrants who move to the US actually experience a decline in health and well being – the traditional Mexican diet (in context) is healthier.

    What I’m saying is that although you don’t mean it to the idea that there’s a (single) right way to live and the moralistic judgment still pervades this post.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for your comment. I see your point–I don’t know how we “should” be eating and it wasn’t my intention to criticize other diets by implying that this one is better than that one, etc. In terms of the word clean, I just wanted to use a term that would mean foods that are in their whole form, and not processed or packaged. My overall goal was just to make the point that the Engine 2 diet is a pretty straightforward, non-gimmicky way of eating, and to distinguish it from fad and/or crash diets. I appreciate your input, and I’ll try to choose my words more carefully in the future.

      1. I totally get what your intention was in the original post. I didn’t mean for my statement to come across so critically. My intention was to hi-light how pervasive our culture’s twisted relationship with food really is. Ultimately, we’ve thrown away several hundred thousand of years worth of food evolution that effectively worked, to reinvent the wheel (poorly) and to moralize it in a way that extends beyond health, pleasure and satiation.

  3. I came to the sudden realization, about a year ago, that “a diet” is simply “what you eat”. No more, no less. All the restricty, deprivey, tormenty meaning attached to “dieting” springs from the idea that we must alter our natural inclinations in a painful way, if we’re to be decent people. I don’t want to buy into that.

    I never dieted growing up. It was a no-go not-happening thing around my household. My mom may have occasionally warned me that I ought to “do something” about my weight before it was “too late”, but never was clear about what that something was. A diet was this strange, vague thing that was probably bad and unfeasable. I mean, all the diets in the magazines were full of really boring food that I didn’t want to eat! Why would I set myself up for that? No wonder diets lead to eating disorders! (Disclaimer: I was a very confused teenager in almost every possible way.)

    As an adult, I sort of bumbled my way into a group of friends where a good 50% of them were either attending Weight Watchers, had attended Weight Watchers and were saving money to go back, or were leading Weight Watchers meetings. I wound up joining out of a mixture of curiosity and exasperation. And I found myself mostly enjoying what I found. Yeeeeeees, it was a diet, but if you ignored all the attempts to sell you questionable snacky cakes and crackers, the core concept endorsed planning out your meals and eating healthy foods and understanding your body’s hunger signals and needs. I hadn’t spent much time pondering any of those things. They were pretty fun to ponder. I lost some weight and picked up some good-for-me eating habits, like learning to eat MORE and learning to speak up and demand food when I’m hungry.

    And then I quit the whole thing when the money became a pain in the ass, and when the drip-drip-drip irritation of some of the meeting talk became too much to bear. (A cup of orange juice is not the end of the world, your weigh-in number is not an indicator of your morals, and FFS ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ is not an appropriate Thought Of The Day!) So now I’m back to where “my diet” is simply what I eat from day to day. I still schedule my weekday meals to ensure I get enough filling, healthy food. I don’t obsessively write everything down, and to hell with points. My weight has been stable.

    Healthy eating seems to get built up as this COMPLETELY IMPOSSIBLE thing. It still feels like it, sometimes! There’s always a naggy voice in the back of my head if I choose to have a second glass of juice, or if I take a larger portion at supper, or if I don’t use the ‘light’ dressing on my tasty salad. You’re not doing it right! You’re NEVER doing it right! And it’s crap, it’s total crap. It comes across as a competition to be the purest, the best, the most perfect… when really, it’s a worthwhile accomplishment to eat enough fruits/veg and to meet my body’s daily needs. Can’t that be enough? Can’t we celebrate that?

    (I like the blog. 🙂 Found my way here from Jezebel.)

  4. I love your blog, your perspective, and the concise way you pare out these issues. I have struggled with disordered eating myself. It’s only been 2-3 years that I have been able to say this is ‘resolved’; oh-so-very-thankfully, I feel I can eat whatever the eff I want to without stressing about it. I really believe a healthy, non-Diet diet involves putting an end to the focus on losing weight, and replacing that focus with listening to one’s body. Chocolate, cheese, cookies are very okay! Eating less chemical crap, eating more veggies, and doing awesome stuff like running, walking, yoga, whatever, helps, of course. Ultimately, listening to and loving your body, giving it what it needs, and resolving to stop torturing it is so liberating.

  5. I love your blog, your perspective, and the concise way you pare out these issues. (Found my way here through Jezebel, too 🙂 )I have struggled with disordered eating myself. It’s only been 2-3 years that I have been able to say this is ‘resolved’; oh-so-very-thankfully, I feel I can eat whatever the eff I want to without stressing about it. I really believe a healthy, non-Diet diet involves putting an end to the focus on losing weight, and replacing that focus with listening to one’s body. Chocolate, cheese, cookies are very okay! Eating less chemical crap, eating more veggies, and doing awesome stuff like running, walking, yoga, whatever, helps, of course. Ultimately, listening to and loving your body, giving it what it needs, and resolving to stop torturing it is so liberating.

  6. i guess i don’t “believe” in dieting. healthy/clean eating is def the way to go, and i wish i was better at it! counting cals has worked for me in the past, but then i noticed myself “competing” with myself to see how FEW calories i could eat so i stopped. obviously that was not working anymore. i’m doing it again to re-lose this weight that creeped back on, but counting cals isn’t a ‘diet’ to me – you still eat whatever (hopefully healthier) vs doing “no carbs” or “low-fat”, etc.

    ultimately i would loooove to eat clean. i know i would feel 110% better all around if i ate lots of veggies and whole grains, little/no sugar, no artificial sugars, no hfcs, no hydrog oils… but it’s hard to give up the convenience of boxed/pre-prepped foods that typically have that stuff in it.

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