diet (dī′ǝt) noun
Primary definition: The usual food and drink of a person or animal; daily sustenance.
From the Greek diaita: way of life.
A friend of mine refers to me as “a nutritionalist.” Maybe that sounds a bit less threatening than “registered dietitian.” When I tell folks what I do, I’ve grown to anticipate a range of responses.
Some nervously give their bodies (or more specifically, their bellies) a glance and with a nervous laugh say something along the lines of “don’t judge me.” Worse yet, if we happen to be at a meal, they’ll stop eating, either unconsciously or surreptitiously, or with the clang of a dropped fork, a gesture of “I’m out.”
Once in awhile, someone will be encouraged and want to know more, whether it’s about the latest fads in nutrition or their specific concerns.
That encourages me, as well. After all, this sort of profession is, by definition, one in which we LOVE to share information. However, it’s that first crowd, the ones who dread my discovery of their eating habits, who I want to reassure and educate the most.
“Diet” has become an ominous word, one which we often use to shame ourselves or that represents something we can actively reject, thus avoiding what promises to be an unhappy roller coaster of prescribed meals. Some save the word for drastic measures, an undertaking to force themselves into an uncomfortable regimen they’re convinced will do them some good.
Note & Disclaimer: if you have a specific medical condition that does in fact require your closely prescribed and monitored intake of food and nutrients, please continue to maintain that plan, with the cooperation of your registered dietitian, physician, and any other medical professionals who care for you.
Let’s just say for a moment that you and I were to agree that we will never, ever, use the word “diet” again to indicate a “should” or a “don’t do that (or “you MUST do this”) or to even consider using the word “cheat” or others that imply judgement. You get the idea. Right?
In case you’re not quite on board yet, let’s discuss. A high stress level normally results in a few things happening. You don’t sleep well. You may want to eat more. You’re preoccupied with the stressor. When you continually worry about what you can, can’t, shouldn’t or must do…. well, now we’ve got our old friend the big elephant in the room.
Now suppose you purposefully, methodically, acquired or merely altered some habits that simply shifted the way you approach some segment of your life — let’s say how you eat — and then instead of being preoccupied and stressed, you just…are.
Don’t you feel better already? Now, back to our agreement. Let’s now suppose and agree that we’ll use the word “diet” from this moment onward ONLY to describe our “usual food or drink.”
That “usual” equals your “new normal.” Once you’ve made inroads into knowing what that new normal includes, it will eventually become less work, and more about the choices you decide to make. Like a physical activity that entails muscle memory (you reach for a cup and pour coffee into without much thought), with repetition, you begin to feel what works for you, and what no longer helps you. When you decide what and how you’ll fuel yourself, you choose. That’s vastly different from being forced (by yourself, by a dietitian, by a fad diet you find online) to toe a line that may or may not be comfortable for you.
What does this look like?
By far, the people I’ve met who have evolved a means of knowing what makes them feel healthy, strong, and in charge are the ones who have experienced the greatest, most long–lasting change. They, and no one else, control their intake.
For example, one woman I work with has lost over 75 pounds and she continues to love discovering what works. She eats real food, cooks for her family, and brought me an amazing box of holiday cookies that she made as gifts. Did she test a cookie or two? Of course. Did she allow that to derail her? Absolutely not. For her upcoming birthday, she proudly shared that she will choose to eat at a certain favorite restaurant, knowing that she will enjoy certain dishes that she no longer eats often or to excess, but which will taste celebratory and special. Her normal, everyday, enjoyable meals aren’t parsimonious or skimpy; they’re just not what she used to eat. She walks a mile now, where she used to balk at getting to her mailbox. Every day, she embraces her new normal.
One man has discovered that he no longer needs some foods that he previously considered addictions. Salt? He didn’t realize his food tasted great without it, that he was making everything taste salty. Sugar alcohols in mints and diet sodas can result in an unproven, yet anecdotal, kind of addiction of their own. He now feels decidedly better without them. We compared ingredients in similar items; when he chose to limit those that were causing him to feel less–than–great, he noticed that those choices became his everyday go–to items, not rules to be followed.
I got a message from another woman, recounting that her family was incredulous when, at a special occasion, she didn’t eat what they considered “diet” food. She chose to forego a few items earlier in the day to fit in a glass of wine and some dessert — both of which were satisfying and tasted, by the way, wonderful.
Others plan meals by how much they’ll send home with guests, freeze for later use, or set aside for other members of the household or specific leftovers. In every case, each feels successful in making their own informed and workable choices. In every case, each has joyfully discovered that “this is just what i choose to eat.”
So, my best advice is this: put in the work on the front end, learning what works best for you. Educate yourself, find a dietitian you feel comfortable with, find an accountability buddy, or whatever else feels right. Then, trust yourself to make the choices that sustain you. Remember, your diet is nothing more than the food you eat. No more, no less. It just is.